Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Specs of "Robot & Frank"

Epic scale space operas have always been a weakness of mine, but lately I've found myself preferring the smaller scale science-fiction stories that look at how we interact with new technology closer to home. A great example of this sub-genre of is "Robot & Frank," which stars Frank Langella as curmudgeonly ex-convict Frank, who is starting to experience worrying gaps in his memory.

Frank lives on his own but has two grown children, Madison (Liv Tyler), and Hunter (James Marsden), who are busy with their own lives, but worry about Frank's condition. Hunter, in a last bid to avoid sending Frank to a retirement home, purchases a robot health aide to help keep his father out of trouble. Frank, stubbornly determined to stay independent, doesn't appreciate the gesture. You can probably guess that Frank grows used to the robot, and comes to rely on his useful skills and companionship. However, the twist here is that Frank is a former jewel thief, and manages to convince the robot that helping him to plan and execute various burglaries is a great way to keep him mentally and physically fit.

Langella is excellent as Frank, a man we suspect has always enjoyed behaving badly, and reveals great pride in his old profession, as he dusts off the old skills to show off to his new friend. However, with the return to lockpicks and architectural blueprints come the consequences that his felonious career has had on his relationships with family and friends, and the uncomfortable truths that he's been trying to avoid facing. His struggles against the memory lapses are so affecting, because of Frank is so relatable. He bristles at being helped or looked after, and there's something admirable about his stubborn insistence on paying regular visits to a diner that no longer exists. Perhaps he is terribly selfish, and enjoys corrupting his robot friend a little too much, but it's hard not to root for the old rebel when he see his enjoyment at returning to the old game.

I really liked the robot in the movie, which the filmmakers were careful not to anthropomorphize too much. It's functional, rather than flashy, resembling a large, blocky Lego man with a astronaut's helmet where the face would be, and a soothing voice provided by Peter Sarsgaard. And though it's at the center of a few very emotional scenes, this is not one of those stories where the robot becomes a real boy, or reveals a secret vein of humanity. Everything it does and says could conceivably be the result of clever programming. At one point it even reveals that it can be as tricky and manipulative as Frank is, in the name of doing what is best for him. Thus Frank's affection for the robot may be entirely one-sided, and the robot may only be reflecting Frank's needs and wants. It's telling that even though Frank comes to care for the robot, he never gives it a name.

There's an underlying conflict in the film about the adoption of new technology. Frank courts Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), keeper of the town's very old and analog library, which is on the brink of being shut down and converted into something compatible with the digital age. It's an awful shame, but an inevitability, as progress always is. Yet progress also brings Frank and the robot together, and their partnership lets Frank get into the kind of trouble he never could have managed on his own, and reach necessary revelations on his own terms. After so many science-fiction cautionary tales, it's nice to see a film where robots and artificial intelligence aren't remotely sinister at all, though the complicated implications of using them as companions are addressed several times.

This is clearly a low budget production, but that's appropriate for a story like this. New technology is present, but it's not overwhelming. There are only two robots that appear in the film, but that's enough to give us a sense of how they function in society, and how people regularly interact with them. First time director Jake Schreier creates a version of the near future that is very recognizable and far likelier than most others I've seen in these kinds of movies. You get a good sense that the old way of doing things isn't so easily set aside or forgotten.

I found "Robot & Frank" very light and easy to watch, occasionally touching without being too sentimental. Sometimes the themes are hammered home a little too hard, but the writing maintains a great sense of humor and the filmmakers stay as grounded in reality as possible. And most importantly, they play fair with the premise. This is a character piece first and foremost, and Frank, we come to understand, would never stand for something as boring and cheap as a happy ending.

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