Sunday, November 18, 2012

New Release Review: Robot and Frank (Jake Shreier, 2012)

The feature film debut for writer Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier, Robot and Frank won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It features Frank Langella in the title role as an aging former jewel thief.

Set in the near future, Frank contently lives alone, reminiscing on his career as a wily cat burglar and estranged and removed from his son Hunter (James Marsden) and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who are growing increasingly concerned about his health and wellbeing. He has been experiencing signs of dementia, a mental depreciation not only recognized by his son, who has grown tired of the weekly visits to his father (who seems to have no appreciation for them) but also the local librarian and friend, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).

Paying a visit to the library is part of Frank’s daily routine – but with the declining interest in print media, the plans for its reformation into a community centre commence, which is part of an enveloping theme of the fading past.

Unable to take care of his father any longer, Hunter purchases a robot companion (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) – a mechanical ‘butler’ programmed to take care of Frank. This involves housekeeping, ensuring he maintains a strict diet and recommends stimulating cognitive exercises such as gardening.

Though he initially rejects his new companion he soon warms to its presence when he realizes that its participation in recreational activities can include being an accomplice in Frank’s capers, the only activity that seems to rejuvenate him and energize his mind. After a few lessons in picking locks and some elaborate scheming the unlikely partners decide to take advantage of the rich new-age yuppies that have moved into the area. 

Robot and Frank is the second film I have seen this year (Wrinkles, a brilliant Spanish animated drama, being the other) that offers a tender insight into the frailty of the elderly and an Alzheimer’s sufferer’s unrecognized decline. Ford and Shreier never take dramatic advantage of Frank’s confusion but offer hints conveying his ailment. Impressively, they provide a complementary subplot that takes advantage of Frank’s newfound youth alongside modern technology and a fondness for the old pitted against the unpleasant future.

The presence/loss of memory becomes an important catalyst in the story. Memory can be stored perfectly within the robot’s programming and able to be reviewed and even utilized as a source of police evidence. Frank’s acceptance of his frail mental state has devastating repercussions and it is one of several heartbreaking sequences. 

Frank Langella is excellent. What a tremendously moving portrayal. He evokes a little disdain initially, but then draws feelings of sympathy and encouragement. There is also competent support from Sarandon (always a class act), Marsden, Jeremy Sisto (a member of the universally excellent cast of Six Feet Under, and a bewildered detective here) and a flawless voice performance from Peter Saarsgard, who hits perfect cynical/sarcastic pitch.

Liv Tyler was disappointing and unconvincing as Frank's well meaning daughter, while Jeremy Strong, a symbol of de-preservation and the capitalist rejection of the past, was a villain who felt too obviously mannered to antagonize.

Robot and Frank is a sensitive and touching study of aging, mental illness, the importance of family and finding life rejuvenation through the unlikeliest of sources. There is some amusing visual humour and the subtle sci-fi elements effectively complement the theme of the fading past. This is a simple, endearing and uplifting story that also provokes a feeling of sadness when we contemplate our future existence, and a sense of hope that we will have someone to guide us through our twilight years.
My Rating: ★★★★

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