“Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:

Aside from boasting one of the year’s most straightforward titles, Robot & Frank is also one of 2012’s most enjoyable films.  A futuristic odd couple tale that never loses its edge, Jake Schreier’s film pits Frank Langella against artificial intelligence and everyone wins.

So many quality scripts, so little time.
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Langella plays a former jewel thief, conveniently named Frank, who lives alone in rural New York.  Clear and capable in many facets of his life, dementia has nonetheless begun to set in, causing him to think that a long-closed diner is open and that his 30something son Hunter (James Marsden) still attends Princeton.  To look after the old grouch, Hunter brings his father a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, who sounds just like Kevin Spacey’s GERTY in Moon).  Frank, of course, wants nothing to do with the robot, but doesn’t exactly refuse its meals or cleaning.

In these early scenes of man vs. machine, Robot & Frank establishes a lighthearted but witty tone that carries throughout the film.  Really, who better to face off against modern technology than a grumpy old man?  As the robot goes about its pre-programmed business, Frank insults its efforts, to which the robot responds cordially and continues on.  There’s a simple, subdued humor to be had through their clash of…well…backgrounds and pairs nicely with the near-future setting.  The film strikes just the right balance of sci-fi beginning to blend with familiar scenery (Blade Runner this ain’t) and is shot with a lens filter that gives the visuals a slightly plastic feel to hint that it’s not quite the present.

Just two buddies,
peeping on the bad robot from Terminator 3.
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Somewhere in the robot’s perseverance, Frank comes to accept his new housemate as a necessary evil, but it’s not until a revelation stirs his old ways that their relationship truly takes off.  While on a trip into town, Frank is nearly caught stealing a trinket from a store.  Back at home, the robot hands him the object, saying that Frank had left it.  Apparently, the robot isn’t programmed to think that theft is wrong, and since its primary objective is to assist Frank in any endeavor, it becomes an ideal accomplice.  Frank jumps at the chance to train his new partner in the art of robbery, teaching him how to pick locks and gather intel.  When a job presents itself in the form of an annoying neighbor (Jeremy Strong) and his wife’s jewels, the pair act on what could be the perfect crime.  After all, who would suspect an old, forgetful man and his robot?

In the future, furniture is extremely uncomfortable.
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Though Robot & Frank has the potential to go all Driving Miss Daisy, Frank is too much of a curmudgeon for the story to turn sentimental.  The film likewise resists many buddy comedy tropes, thanks to the robot’s inability to be intentionally funny.  Robot humor may be played out, but there’s a special joy to be derived from a deadpan electronic voice that, after a run of polite banter, casually drops in a line like, “It’s time for your enema, Frank.”

Communication between machines is likewise cheeky.  At a party, Frank’s love interest Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) attempts to introduce her robot, Mr. Darcy, to Frank’s companion.  When Mr. Darcy replies that he’s not programmed to communicate with that particular model, Jennifer chastises him for being rude.  For the humans, the exchange carries the impoliteness of high-society faux pas, but for the robots, as with everything else in their doings, it’s simply a matter of fact.

Frank, the feeling is mutual.
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The film’s humor is certainly one of its stronger aspects, but don’t mistake Robot & Frank for an all-out chuckle fest.  Christopher D. Ford’s script also has room for a gradual, genuinely touching friendship between the titular leads,  and his depiction of dementia is thoroughly sympathetic.  Along with Starting Out in the Evening and Frost/Nixon, the film continues Langella’s late-career dominance, and with the exception of Liv Tyler (a whiny distraction as Frank’s daughter) is capably acted all around.  The careful plotting also results in a wildly successful last-second bombshell that completely took me by surprise, but which some viewers may sniff out.  All combined, these strengths make Robot & Frank a fine work that, though not overly ambitious, is completely successful at what it sets out to accomplish.

Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for some language.

Robot & Frank opens on Friday, August 31 at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.

For more film reviews, visit The Isolated Moviegoer.

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