It takes a thief -- and a robot

It takes a thief -- and a robot

Frank Langella shines as the reluctant master of a machine

By Tim Pompey 09/13/2012


Robot & Frank
Directed by Jake Schreier
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard  
Rated PG-13 for some language violence, language and some sexuality/nudity   
1 hr. 29 mins.

Over my lifetime, I’ve watched a lot of robot movies and television shows. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Lost in Space, Star Wars and 2001: Space Odyssey, to name a few. What’s different about this premise is that someone painstakingly teaches a robot to become a first-rate burglar, all within the parameters of its programming. Now that’s clever.

But then, this is a different kind of movie. Quiet and lighthearted with a touch of sadness. Casual yet cutting. Easy moving but with a clear sense of direction.

Given a decent script and a taut performance by Frank Langella, it manages to steer around a wilderness of clichés and keep moving without hitting too many snags. OK, maybe the plot has some holes and the ending is a bit too contrived, but good acting can overcome a host of problems. Quibble if you like, but watching Frank and his pesky robot commit larceny is a treat.

The film takes place in the near future, where high tech has become a standard part of everyone’s life. Everyone, that is, except for Frank (Frank Langella), an irascible cat burglar who has retired to a small town in upstate New York.

His children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), are concerned that as he ages and grows forgetful, living alone has become more difficult for him. Rather than send him off to a brain hospital, Hunter decides to buy Frank his own personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard). Well, not just a robot. A butler and healthcare assistant who can cook, clean house and push Frank to develop a healthier lifestyle. As Frank soon discovers, the bot has a mission and his name is Frank.

Frank’s grouchy nature takes aim at his new assistant until he discovers something intriguing. The robot can be taught. Once a burglar, always a burglar, and Frank sees potential. Convincing his cohort that burglary might be a good hobby, Frank teaches him to pick locks. Bot and burglar become a team.

Imagine the Odd Couple thrown into the future. Except for the shift from man to machine, it’s the same concept, and it works because Langella is so thoroughly convincing as a professional thief whose diminished skills have left him languishing and bored in his run-down house.

Since the film’s success hinges on the relationship between Frank and the robot, it takes a clever actor to make this work. Langella’s body language and dark eyes convey the passion and disappointment of a proud man whose career and life have faded.

Yes, he’s been locked up in prison and his life still reflects that solitude, but Langella also provides Frank with a sharp sense of curiosity and a sly bit of tenderness. For example, he steals a rare copy of Don Quixote from the local library to give as a gift to Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), his favorite librarian.

Credit director Jake Schreier for the clever use of the robot. A turn of the head, a delayed response, a persuasive argument — Schreier skillfully welds man and machine into this story, and Sarsgaard uses just the right amount of voice inflection to convey concern without appearing too human.

Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan feature film award this year at Sundance, this is a small movie with a quirky premise. It builds slowly and draws you into some interesting and touching interaction between man and robot.

Can you be friends with your phone? Your iPod? Your robotic healthcare assistant? In the world of Robot & Frank, this idea grows on you, slowly, like fresh tomatoes in a garden. The surprise is where this film ends up when that friendship, strange as it may first seem, finally blooms.


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