Friday, March 15, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Robot & Frank (2012) ***

PG-13, 89 min.
Director: Jake Schreier
Writer: Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Ana Gasteyer
Voice: Peter Sarsgaard

There are actors who I think wait for something different to come across their desks. Their agents probably get frustrated with them, because they could each make more money if they would take smaller parts in bigger movies. These agents don’t get their clients. “Why would you want to do more work for less money?” they wonder. The actors who are in “Robot & Frank” give their agents ulcers.

The thing is “Robot & Frank” is a perfectly enjoyable film that mainstream audiences would take pleasure in just as much as art house audiences. It isn’t really all that weird. It tells a relatable story. It has the same levels of tension and release that typical mainstream films involve. It’s just that its pitch is a little harder to sell. When Hollywood producers hear the terms “in the near future” and “robot servants” they conjure up certain expectations that “Robot & Frank” is not interested in. This is unfortunate, because if they thought of this movie as a Nancy Meyers project, they’d get it.

“Robot & Frank” isn’t about technology and action and lasers. It’s about people and how funny and quirky and difficult life can be. It’s about how we depend on each other to make our lives better. If there’s a robot involved in that life enrichment, so be it. The Statue of Liberty doesn’t have to explode just because there’s a slight element of science fiction in the story.

The robot of the title is a gift from the son of the Frank of the title to help his father maintain his hygiene, diet and schedule. Frank is an older man, who sometimes gets confused. He used to be a jewel thief, but has retired to a life barely lived. When the robot enters his life he begins to find a new clarity. He even starts to eat the vegetables the robot serves him. The robot’s routines allow for a structure that helps with Frank’s memory. The pure logic of the robot even allows Frank to resume his old thieving habits. The robot sees the tasks as good therapy, and the robot has no moral programming. Why would a caretaking robot need it?

The movie lives off the performances provided by its special cast. Frank Langella is Frank. Peter Sarsgaard is the voice of the robot. Liv Tyler and the always-underrated James Marsden are Frank’s children. Susan Sarandon plays a librarian Frank has eyes for. Just the cast alone cries out that this is an enjoyable life dramadey. Don’t let the robot from the near future confuse you.

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