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Robot & Frank

Pray forgive me if I haven’t been blogging as much as usual lately. This is partly due to a very busy offline life (and it’s about to get much busier soon, I’m afraid), but it’s mostly because I have so little to work with.

Really, what am I going to review? The Cold Light of Day? The Words? Resident Evil: Retribution? Last Ounce of Courage? Honest to God, when the best new film in multiplexes is a 3D re-release of a movie from nine years ago, you know it’s a bad time to be a movie geek. This lack of decent selection is so bad that just last weekend, ticket sales were at the lowest they’ve ever been since 9/11.

Luckily, things are going to be picking up very soon. The Master is set to go wide this coming weekend, ditto for Trouble with the Curve and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This Friday will also see the release of Dredd (which has been getting surprisingly good buzz) and End of Watch, and Looper is set to bow at the end of the month. Unfortunately, I’m set to go on vacation this coming weekend (yes, again), and class will be starting immediately after. I was determined to get a good quality review in before that happens.

Fortunately, there was a rather interesting film screening at the Fox Tower that I hadn’t gotten to yet: Robot & Frank. The trailer had me very hopeful for the film’s quality, with a creative sci-fi story anchored by the phenomenal talent of Frank Langella. Imagine my disappointment to learn that the movie fails in some very basic ways.

The story takes place just outside Cold Spring, New York, in what the title card calls “the near future.” There, we meet Frank Welds (Langella), an old man living by himself out in the sticks. He’s a man completely at odds with the world around him, slow at adapting to modern technology and refusing to admit that he’s going senile. He’s the last remaining patron of the local library, and that’s mostly because of his crush on the librarian (Jennifer, played by Susan Sarandon).

At this point, Frank is quite interesting to watch. The story of an old man who may or may not be losing his memory, refusing to admit his growing weakness and denying any help, is a classic one. It’s instantly sympathetic. In fact, watching Frank’s disgust with the robots and cars of this era, I liked to imagine that Frank was someone of my generation. Somehow, the film made future technology look so polished and hokey that it made me — a guy who came of age with the internet and cell phones — feel like a dinosaur just to watch it. I somehow found it amusing to think that Frank could be me, fifty years from now.

But then the Robot comes in. And things go off the rails very quickly.

See, Frank has two kids. Madison (Liv Tyler) is a political activist who travels the world to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, etc. So, Hunter (James Marsden) takes it upon himself to check in on his dad once a week. Fed up with Frank’s declining mental health and quality of life, and tired of arguing with his dad over the point, Hunter finally takes purchase of a robot nurse. Robot is specially designed to gain Frank’s trust, improve his diet, keep him physically active, keep the house clean, and so on. Naturally, Frank detests the thing. But then he finds out that Robot is so highly specialized in the field of health care, it has no qualms about stealing.

Oh, I didn’t mention Frank’s former profession? He used to be a professional thief who specialized in jewelry heists. And here he is, with an assistant who can pick locks and crack safes in record time. Frank even has the perfect mark: Jake (Jeremy Strong), a smarmy millionaire prick with plans to renovate Jennifer’s library so it’s all electronic. Yes, he wants to make a library without books, focused more on the “community experience” of being in a library. It makes sense, in a 21st century kind of way. But I digress.

The moment that Frank started going back to his criminal ways, the movie completely lost its charm for me. Of course, that’s not to say criminals can’t be sympathetic or entertaining to watch. Just take Robin Hood, for instance. Not only did that character have noble intentions, but he was so handsome, so smart, and so skilled in combat that he remains one of the most beloved and sympathetic criminals in history.

Compare that to Frank, a character without any noble intentions at all. In fact, given that Frank never mentions a plan for what to do with the jewels once he gets them, stealing seems to be an end in itself for him. Granted, his first heist is to steal a valuable book for Jennifer, but that point is moot because the storyline amounts to nothing. Moreover, Frank was trying to make a present out of a priceless book that Jennifer knew was stolen. How did he think she was going to react after he gave it to her?

It bears repeating that Frank is an old man with a decaying mind. Even worse, his heists are presented without any surprises or tension. So basically, Frank doesn’t even work as a romanticized version of a criminal. I suppose there’s something about how Frank starts showing signs of improvement while he’s planning a theft, but that seems like a very unsympathetic character arc.

Basically, Frank goes from being a grumpy old man to being a grumpy, old, lying, cheating, conniving thief. Why on Earth should I cheer for this character? Because his mark is such an impossibly huge douchebag? Sorry, but that just gives me two characters to root against.

There’s also the fact that Frank is a huge jerk to his kids. Granted, Hunter is a bit of a tyrant about forcing Robot onto Frank, but at least he’s trying. I could understand a guy losing patience and getting aggressive about his dad’s care after putting in so much time and effort himself without so much as a “thank you” for it. Compare that to Madison.

Pretty much everything about Maddy is a huge failure. To start with, she’s a woman who firmly opposes reliance on machines, so she takes it upon herself to relieve Robot as Frank’s live-in nurse. In theory, this would be a great opportunity to take a deep look at the ethics of using artificially intelligent robots in place of humans. In practice, Maddy comes off as a bleeding-heart who offers no compelling or well-reasoned arguments to back up her beliefs. I suspect this is mostly due to Liv Tyler. Has she ever played a character who was believably intelligent?

Maddy’s crowning failure comes with the resolution of her conflict with Robot. To avoid spoilers as best I can, Frank pitches a fit until she agrees to let the Robot stay. The problem is that this is executed in such a way that Maddy comes off looking like an idiot, a liar, and a hypocrite. What’s worse, Frank is once again taking the hospitality of his own child and throwing it back with disdain. He isn’t even doing it because he’s come to care for the robot, but so he can get his partner in crime back before their window of opportunity closes for the big break-in. Bottom line: This is not how characters endear themselves to an audience!

I suppose I could go on to talk about Jake and Sheriff Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto), but these characters are so two-dimensional and so impossible to like that I’d prefer not to dignify them. There’s so little to these characters that I wouldn’t have much to talk about anyway.

Fortunately, not all of the characters are completely unsympathetic. Jennifer is probably the only one in the cast who acts like a decent human being through the entire movie, and it’s easy to see why Frank would be so smitten with her. Such a pity the film makes so little use of her, though.

Finally, there’s the movie’s strongest point: Robot. So much of the movie is redeemed because of how well the robot works. To start with, Peter Sarsgaard provides phenomenal voice-work for the character. Robot’s voice sounds just impersonal and atonal enough to sound mechanical, but just cheerful enough that he’s easy to grow attached to. Perhaps more importantly, Robot was blessed with some of the best dialogue in the entire film. It was genuinely interesting to learn about what Robot can do, what he’s forbidden from doing, how he sees himself, and so on. In fact, when Robot is urged to converse with another machine, it results in one of the film’s most entertaining and intriguing moments.

That said, Robot is not without nits to pick. I had minor problems with this character right away, when Hunter first unloads Robot from the back of his car. The thing was obviously a plastic prop, without any sign of the appropriate weight or heft. Additionally, I could tell right away that Robot was a person (in this case, a dancer named Rachael Ma) in a suit. Despite the wonderful sound design, Robot’s movements didn’t quite look mechanical or unnatural enough for my liking. Then again, it’s possible that the robot was made after generations of breakthroughs in motor engineering and lightweight materials.

I’m willing to grant Robot some benefit of the doubt, in large part because of this film’s outstanding production design. The various cars, phones, and other futuristic devices are all wonderfully presented, and often made with some very clever touches. I was particularly fond of the QR codes on car license plates. Still, I think my favorite application of future technology was in how a wood-and-metal string quartet was filtered in real-time to sound like electronic music. That was a very fascinating and creative idea in its execution, as well as a subtle reminder that in this world, electronics and machines can alter absolutely anything.

Finally, as much crap as I give this film about its characters, it’s clear that these actors are all doing the best they can with what they have. Frank Langella is such a seasoned pro that no matter how wretched Frank gets, he’s still entertaining to watch. Susan Sarandon is also very charming, James Marsden is clearly putting a ton of effort toward making Hunter sympathetic, and even Liv Tyler seems to be trying her hardest within her limited abilities.

Robot & Frank was directed by Jake Schreier and written by Christopher Ford, both of whom make their feature debuts here. I applaud them for doing such a detailed and creative job at crafting this near-future world, and also for the screenplay’s brief moments of undeniable quality. Robot’s dialogue was pretty much uniformly excellent, and the script also had a wonderfully-executed twist near the end. I must also give Schreier kudos for coaxing such solid performances out of the cast, though all of this talent was wasted on awful characters. That’s ultimately what sinks the movie for me: Frank was so completely unlikable that I couldn’t get invested in his story. Every time he acted like an awful person, I kept getting pulled out of the movie.

I would normally recommend a rental if you’re curious, but these are lean times for movie lovers. If nothing else, I’m sure it beats The Words all to hell.

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