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film reviewMan and machine bond in sly, poignant ‘Robot & Frank’

From the review trailer, you’d think Robot & Frank was a madcap comedy about an aging ex-jewel thief and his new robotic accomplice in crime. Yes, these elements do figure into the plot, but that’s not all there is to the story. Beneath the laughs—and there are plenty of them, thanks to yet another knockout performance from Frank Langella in the central role—this sly debut feature from director Jake Schreier is a surprisingly poignant meditation on age, friendship, family, and the role of memory in defining who we are.

Scripted by Christopher D. Ford, the film revolves around Frank (Langella), a cantankerous old git rambling around his empty nest of a family home in upstate New York, sometime in “the near future.” He’s long since divorced; his son, Hunter (James Marsden), busy with his own life and family, can only get up to see him once a week, and his globe-trotting daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is always calling from some exotic locale via Skype (or its futuristic equivalent).

All that breaks up his days are trips to the village library, whose librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) greets him as her “one and only patron,” and tries to find him titles he hasn’t already read a dozen times from the dwindling supply of non-digitized stock.

Frank has started to forget things; he can never remember his favorite village cafe is long gone, or that his son has been out of Princeton for 15 years. Concerned, Hunter brings him a “health care aid” in the form of a personal robot. About 4 feet tall (it looks like a mini storm trooper made of white metal with an empty black visor for a “face”) the robot is programmed to cook healthy meals, and engage Frank in projects that will keep his mind active. Frank is having none of it, of course, but Hunter warns ominously if he doesn’t go along with the plan, “you’ll wind up in the Memory Center.”

Frank hates the food and resents the intrusion into his life, yet finds he doesn’t mind having someone to talk to, or at least listen to his own rants. (Robot’s patient, if not quite emotional, voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard.) For his part, Robot reveals that if he fails at his job, he’ll have his memory circuits wiped clean and reprogrammed—a fate with which Frank can sympathize all too well. When Frank also discovers that Robot has no automatic moral override when it comes to unethical tasks—like picking locks and stealing—he comes up with a project the two of them can do together.

Frank’s targets are the rich and trendy young couples moving in to gentrify the neighborhood—beginning with his beloved library. Director Schreier (ex-keyboardist for indie rockers Francis and the Lights) has fun satirizing the pop culture of tomorrow; the incoming library honchos think books are cool, in a retro-hip kind of way, although they question the previous generation’s “quaint relationship to printed media.” As actual books disappear from the shelves, Jennifer explains, “It’s all about augmented reality now.” (Still in an ironic nod to the classics of yore, her robotic boss is called “Mr. Darcy.”)

But the underlying story of family relations and friendship are just as quietly compelling. When anti-machine activist Madison comes to stay with her dad for a few days, and de-activates Robot, Frank blurts out in protest, “But he’s my friend!” As the law closes in, Frank doesn’t have the heart to take Robot’s advice and erase his memory circuits to destroy the evidence against himself; he can’t bear to lose the connection between them. And there’s a lovely little epiphany toward the end that brings the family story full circle.

Langella is as marvelous as ever, which is saying a lot. His Frank is gruff, caustic and funny, yet often eloquent in his unspoken vulnerability. He’s not only interesting to spend time with, it’s extremely smart of the filmmakers to unfold the story entirely from Frank’s not-always-reliable viewpoint, which makes for some very touching and surprising revelations along the way. And stick around for the closing credits, where a montage of real-life robotic droids in action reminds us that the future is just around the corner.


ROBOT & FRANK

★★★ (out of four)

With Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon. Written by Christopher D. Ford. Directed by Jake Schreier. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

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