‘Robot & Frank’: Machine dreams

August 16, 2012


A caper film whose biggest thief is actually the inexorable flow of time, “Robot & Frank” is a terrific character study that offers the always-captivating Frank Langella the opportunity to stretch out a little bit.

Though Jake Schreier’s film, from a script by Christopher Ford, builds to a contrived climax, it offers food for thought: about the nature of friendship and the impermanence of memory. In the end, it offers a bittersweet final note, thanks to the carefully shaded performance by Langella, in his best role since the unfortunately little-seen “Starting Out in the Evening.”

He plays Frank Weld, a retired cat burglar living alone in Cold Spring, a town north of Manhattan. He lives alone in the old family house, much to the consternation of his grown children Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler). Madison travels for work and communicates by an advanced form of Skype (the film is set in the near future). Hunter lives a couple of hours away and checks in on his dad every week or so.

But what he finds is disturbing: The growing mess in the house seems to indicate that Frank is slipping into dementia. He wants to give the appearance of being sharp, but his reveries about the old days seem to melt with the present and he can’t remember to put the milk away after he uses it.

Frank is adamant about not moving to a “memory” facility, so Hunter takes a radical step: He brings Frank a robot caretaker, capable of monitoring Frank’s activities, urging him into activity meant to stimulate his mind and making him healthy meals. Resistant at first, Frank gradually settles into quarrelsome conversation with the mechanical helper (voiced soothingly by Peter Sarsgaard).

Old habits die hard, however, and as he visits the local library – which is removing its books to offer, instead, the “library experience” – to visit his friendly librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), Frank hits on a plan: He’ll rob the library, lifting a rare copy of “Don Quixote.” (Yes, obviously, a little too on the nose, but there you are; even a writer as experienced as Aaron Sorkin can’t resist using it as a metaphor.)

To Frank’s delight, he also discovers that the robot has no chip or program to determine morality. The robot is a whiz at encryption and lock picking – and winds up as Frank’s partner in crime. Eventually, he joins Frank on an even bigger caper, breaking into the home of the weekend yuppie scum who have taken over the library.

The plotting, however, is less interesting than the character of Frank, given both crust and heart by Langella. He’s an aging thief who hates his diminishing capacity – when he can recognize it – and loves the chance to put one over on the future by using it against itself. Langella captures the unexpected sense of affection and loyalty that develops between man and machine, even as machine reminds man repeatedly that he does not, in fact, have emotions. Tell that to the guy who’s still feeling them.

The rest of the cast – Sarandon, Marsden, Tyler, Jeremy Strong as the villain – offer able support, but this is Langella’s show, all the way. He just gets better as an actor and lifts “Robot & Frank” beyond its plot shortcomings into a funny and touching tale of one man’s efforts to stay true to himself, even when his own brain is failing him.

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