Home Help – ★★★★
Robot & Frank is the first picture from the director/writer team of Jake Schreier and Christopher Ford. It premiered at Sundance 2012 and has unfortunately languished since then with a summer North American release preceding a fairly limited showing in Ireland and the UK.
The film is set in the near future and sees Langella playing the titular character of Frank whose mind is going but who is adamant he will stay living in his secluded upstate New York home. His son (played by James Marsden) can’t keep travelling five hours to look in on his father so buys him a robot to offer some assistance around the home. Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) is travelling the world so only checks in via futuristic video phone now and again. Frank’s only other acquaintance other than the robot is the town librarian played by Susan Sarandon. Frank is a retired cat-burglar who decides to get back in the game with the help of his new assistant.
You can hardly argue that the film is a tough sell. Marketing executives would have to choose between taglines like “A buddy movie between a pensioner and his robot servant?”, “A futuristic tale where sci-fi and small-town society merge”, “a love story of life and loss. And tomatoes”.
Ultimately their choice to run with “friendship doesn’t have an off switch” tied with a gazing Frank Langella looking into a robot’s visor eyes (see right) gives a fairly solid representation of what audiences are in for.
While the film’s unique selling point is of course the near-future setting and integration of robot technologies, it’s by no means integral to the story. Switch out the robot for an outcast, immigrant, simpleton or child (you get the picture) and you’d have the same effect. It’s a troubled, lonely, old soul who finds comfort and company after overcoming his initial scepticism. In lesser hands it could seem hokey and stupid but Langella is absolutely brilliant. His mannerisms and character quirks are all suitably subtle but manage to get under your skin as you begin to empathise with his family as the onset of dementia takes hold. However the new lease of life brought about by the robot (monotonically voiced by Peter Sarsgaard but brought to life by dancer Rachael Ma who wears the little white suit) will warm even the coldest heart. Plus watching the two of them rob a house is gas.
Robot & Frank was the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival which honours films that use science or technology as a central theme. It’s quite fitting as the film’s integration of technology is seamless and perfectlyly believable. In fact you’d barely know the film was even set in the future until ten minutes in when you hear a strange ringtone which wakes up a sleeping Frank and he uses voice activation to answer a video call from his daughter. From then on it’s a series of believable incremental developments like transparent smart-phones or public libraries being replaced with digital archiving. The robots we’re introduced to aren’t that far away from what you’d expect to be the norm in fifteen year’s time.
A little familial twist in the final act feels tacked on and isn’t necessary but most of the film’s minor flaws lie away from our central pairing in a few dud characters. A particular word for Jeremy Strong who plays the library re-developer and yuppie who moves into the neighbourhood. He’s just too cartoony and ridiculous to be believable, and his presence changes the tone of the film completely whenever he’s on-screen.
Robot & Frank may have taken an age to make it to Irish screens but it was definitely worth the wait. It’s likely to be another lengthy spell before a low-budget film like this will find that weird balance between sweetness and science and manage to connect so successfully with audiences.
USA / Directed By: Jake Schreier / Written By: Christopher D. Ford / Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, James Marsden, Peter Sarsgaard / 89min / Drama, Comedy / Release: 8 March 2013 (Ireland, UK), 17 August 2012 (USA, Canada)