Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Low-tech sci-fi premise puts wry twist on buddy picture

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To outward appearances, Robot & Frank looks like a maudlin exercise in cinematic sweetness. Happily, it is not.

Set in the near future, the film posits a day when helper robots are a common commodity for senior citizens who are losing their faculties.

Frank (Frank Langella) is just such a senior citizen, living alone in chaotic clutter in an idyllic small-town community. He can't remember the names of his own children when they call. His son Hunter (James Marsden), busy trying to raise a family of his own, gifts his dad with a plastic, generic-looking robot helper. Robot (Frank can't be bothered to give it a name) will cook healthy meals and clean the house.

Frank isn't all that interested. When he's focused, Frank would rather court the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), or pilfer expensive soap from a high-end boutique. He doesn't really take an interest in his little plastic buddy until he discovers Robot's programming allows for a little wiggle room when it comes to illegal activities.

Frank, you see, is a retired jewel thief, a proud "second-storey man" who has abandoned his criminal vocation. When he realizes his robotic helper would make an excellent accomplice, Frank starts to re-engage with the world, albeit in a way that would likely meet the disapproval of his son and his globe-trotting, do-gooder daughter (Liv Tyler).

Science-fiction trappings aside, the script by Christopher D. Ford is primarily an astringent character study. Frank is not the typical crusty movie senior who gets a new lease on life la Cocoon. He is, in fact, a bit of a bastard who sacrificed parenting time for jail time.

Robot (whose modulated voice of reason comes courtesy of actor Peter Sarsgaard) is not a cute movie robot. In the latter half of the film, he is rather insistent on the subject of his own absence of humanity, however strong Frank's impulse to think of him as a friend. Robot & Frank may look like a sweet buddy movie, but the filmmakers consistently resist the temptation to go down that road.

Director Jake Schreier turns the film's low budget to his advantage, keeping the story grounded in frail humanity. The film's most special effect is Langella, who brings his intense, laser-like focus on being truthful to Frank's fundamentally selfish nature.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Other voices

Excerpts from reviews of Robot & Frank:

Charming, playful and sly, it makes us believe that a serene automaton and a snappish human being can be best friends forever.

-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Much of Robot & Frank is (frankly) resistible, including the climactic narrative twist, but there is also a likable oddness that transcends the sentimental contrivance.

-- Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail

Just about the time that Robot starts to grow on his curmudgeonly client, so may this movie -- a sci-fi fantasia that's surprisingly sweet and old-fashioned -- win over any skeptics.

-- Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

-- Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie review

Robot & Frank

Starring Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon

Grant Park

PG

90 minutes

31Ñ2 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2012 D6

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