Robot and Frank (2012); Written by Christopher D. Ford; Directed by Jake Shreirer; Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Sisto. PG-13
This is a bittersweet, quirky little movie that should win lead, Frank Langella, an Oscar nomination. With a small scope and probably an equally low budget, the film shows that, best conceived, the sci-fi genre is not about spectacular effects, but about the nature of the human person.
Robot and Frank is less a story, and more a meditation on the isolating effects of aging. More to the point, the movie makes the argument that in the twilight of our lives, when our control over life is slipping, the struggle will be not to miss the remaining present to obsession over the moments in our past in which we felt most vital and in control. If a good theme is a thesis that can be argued, then this film has a nice, stout little heart to hold it together. A solid secondary and related theme has to do with the role of memory in making us who we are. The old man is losing his and the robot, in a final act of something like love offers his own memory to be wiped clean. This is a project in which theme and character trump plot, which means it drags a bit and opens the door for a ridiculous third act reversal, but overall, by emphasizing the second and third most key elements of story, the movie bears up. And comes out worthy.
The plot involves an aged jewel thief who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. His son buys him a newfangled health-care robot with which he bonds by turning it into a partner in crime. The robot is disarmingly cute and solicitous, and Langella strikes all the right beats as a gruff old man resisting the invasion of modern technology. There is, as I said, a stupid reversal that comes at the very end that undermines most of the movie, but try not to focus on it and take the good that is here.
From a philosophical standpoint, I had a few uncomfortable quibbles with the moments of deliberation that the movie gives to the robot character. It’s a basic tenet of moral theology that only men are persuadable and it is a sign of the times that people are so ignorant of philosophy, that the audience and critics didn’t flag this immediately as an absurd plot problem. I thought watching the movie, “What’s next? A character who thinks the earth revolves around the sun?’ But what is the point of cursing the fact that we live in an era in which men have forgotten so much? Once you accept that it is possible to create a robot that can make moral choices, the movie sails off into the possibility of relationship between men and machine. But I really don’t think that is what the project is really about so it doesn’t derail on this error.
The heart of the movie is that Frank can’t let go of his glory days when he was a committed and highly skilled jewel thief. He spends much of the movie reliving the rush of planning and executing heists. It is tragic because those days cost him everything in life that is really valuable. His marriage ended. His children grew up missing him and being embarrassed by him. His freedom was lost to many years in the slammer. His glory days were really, really selfish and ugly, and the tragedy and paradox of the film is that he can’t stop wishing he could have them back.
So, this is yet another movie coming from a team of Gen Xers, about the tragic, unrepented lives of their Boomer parents. Dysfunctional child-parent relationships and “what the hell happened in the Sexual Revolution?” is the recurring theme of so many young filmmakers today. They want to talk about it the way young Boomers wanted to talk about rebellion. Sit back and buy some popcorn. There are probably another two decades of this kind of story yet to pour forth from the well of resentment and confusion that is the Gen Xers and Millenials.
There is a good slate of actors here and they do as best as they can with the stilted characterizations written for them as supporting characters. The movie is about Frank and Langella executes very well. I wonder if the filmmakers purposely made the other characters one-dimensional because our perception of them is filtered through Frank’s basic narcissism? He doesn’t really love the robot so much as use it… I want to live in a universe where movie storytelling is that smart.
I liked this film. If slow moving and small scaled, it’s still solid and humane and elicits emotion towards the side of decency. (For my parents and those like them – God bless ‘em!) it has nothing by way of language, sex or violence that will take away from your enjoyment of the tale. Sadly, as one of those little Sundance movies, it won’t make it to most of the theaters near you. Do catch it on DVD.