Four stars; rated PG-13, and rather needlessly, for brief profanity
STARRING: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Science fiction isn’t solely devoted to opulent spaceship battles and grim post-apocalyptic survival sagas, despite Hollywood’s best efforts to suggest as much.
Some of our best cinema sci-fi has been much quieter and more deeply moving: gentle parables that employ only modest futuristic touches in order to confront universal truths — often uncomfortable ones — about the human condition.
These days, as aging baby boomers contemplate the frightening implications of mental and/or physical deterioration, we’re seeing a corresponding focus on gerontology issues. Science fiction has responded in kind.
“Robot & Frank” is a whimsical, charming and poignant character study: a film school short expanded into a full-length feature that enchanted this year’s Sundance Film Festival audience and went home with the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. The tone of Christopher D. Ford’s original script — his first big-screen effort — feels very much like that of a Ray Bradbury story: thoughtful, occasionally poetic and willing to tackle unsettling topics.
But this slice of elder life is disarmingly cloaked in the trappings of a mild-mannered comedy, and the story’s more serious elements sneak up on us. Director Jake Schreier, also making an impressive feature film debut, paces the narrative quite skillfully; he also draws persuasive performances from his cast members, most notably star Frank Langella.
The setting is “the near future” in the upstate New York community of Cold Spring. Frank (Langella) lives alone in an increasingly cluttered home that is nestled in the woods, a comfortable walk from town. Frank’s grown children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), have grown worried about his apparent inability to care for himself; his fading memory also plays tricks on him, such as an ongoing desire to dine at a long-absent local restaurant.
Frank’s one regular joy comes from the walking trips he takes to the Cold Spring Library, where he exchanges oft-read books while chatting with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). She is the facility’s sole remaining human employee — filing duties and record-keeping having been embraced by computers and ambulatory machines — and Frank is pretty much the building’s only visitor.
Hunter makes time-consuming weekly drives to check on his father, more out of a feeling of responsibility than any genuine desire to spend time together; we sense efforts to surmount mild estrangement, the cause for which eventually becomes clear. Hunter, increasingly concerned by what he finds each week, threatens placement in a senior care facility; Frank angrily resists.
So Hunter compromises by gifting his father with a walking, talking humanoid robot that has been programmed to improve the old man’s physical and mental health. Stung by this presumptuousness, Frank bitterly resents the hovering presence of this mechanical nanny, which now micro-manages his every move, from strict, healthier diets to enforced regular waking and sleeping hours.
This arrangement seems doomed to failure, until Frank discovers that his new companion’s programming is somewhat light on ethics. Although the robot understands concepts such as theft, it has no inherent objections to such behavior. And if Frank becomes newly invigorated by this discovery, well, so much the better.
You see, Frank is a “retired” cat burglar, long chafing at his inability to continue the quite exciting, high-stakes career that he remembers so vividly. The robot has physical skills that Frank’s old fingers now fumble, not to mention additional abilities — such as rapidly trying all possible values of a combination lock — that would require prohibitive amounts of time for a human being.
And thus a new — and quite unlikely — criminal team is born.
Langella, for years an under-appreciated actor only now receiving proper recognition for a long and remarkably varied career that recently brought him an Academy Award nomination for 2008’s “Frost/Nixon,” delivers a precise, delicately nuanced performance. His expressive features convey a wealth of emotions, from stubborn petulance to sorrow, embarrassment and the genuine fear that he may have become as obsolete as the books in the town library.
Watch for the flicker of interest — so marvelously subtle, at first — as Frank learns of his new companion’s moral shortcomings.
Tyler breezes into this story when the globe-trotting Madison — a political activist with rather strong views on the subject of robot helpers — decides to visit and care for Frank herself. It’s a noble gesture, but Madison can’t begin to cope with the situation; Tyler deftly conveys her character’s warring, guilt-laden emotions.
Marsden has a somewhat tougher role, because Hunter lacks the comfortable relationship that his sister shares with their father. Hunter is more apt to act according to his own definition of a “best” solution, rather than working with Frank toward a mutually agreeable goal. And yet, even as a successful adult with a family of his own, Hunter stills recalls being the little boy who worshiped his dad.
Sarandon, as always, is an effervescent revelation. Jennifer is a patient woman with an obvious fondness for Frank, and of course we wonder if anything will come of that.
Peter Sarsgaard supplies the robot’s voice, and longtime movie buffs will blink more than once, because the calm, carefully modulated tones strongly echo HAL, from 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Fortunately, Sarsgaard inhabits a far more benevolent artificial construct … and one whose fate soon concerns us quite deeply.
Because that, too, is a heavy topic in Schreier’s film. The agony of encroaching senility is uppermost — the potential loss of a once-vibrant man, cast aside much like Jennifer’s cherished books — but Ford’s screenplay also contemplates the degree to which a robotic being can blossom from intrusive pest to valued friend.
People, particularly lonely people, have long valued their strong bonds with pet cats and dogs. In our probable brave new world, is it so difficult to imagine the same thing happening with mechanical companions? Briefs clips of actual robots — some clearly designed to assist the elderly — accompany this film’s closing credits, and they lend weight to all such questions.
Steven Spielberg capably covered this territory with 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” his contemplative and often quite disturbing adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Schreier and Ford’s new film makes an excellent, if less flashy, companion piece: a “what if” tale that encourages us to acknowledge some painful, real-world truths.
And that’s the mark of a truly successful science-fiction story.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com