Film three at the Melbourne International Film Festival!
Robot & Frank is the kind of film I walk into with the expectation that I’ll end up suffering a severe migraine from 90 minutes of compulsive eye-rolling. On paper, its premise seems to almost quiver with Ron Howard-esque sentimentality and cuteness. But somehow, by some miracle, this possibility has been entirely subverted – much to the credit of first-time director, Jake Schreier. So here goes:
An old man (Frank Langella), sometime in the future, suffers from Alzheimer’s. Given the old man’s stubborn refusal to seek help and move into a care facility, the man’s son (James Marsden) buys a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to look after him. The old man forms a relationship with the robot, and together they recommence the old man’s former career as a cat burglar. Meanwhile, the old man continues to flirt with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon), and deal with the anti-robot agenda of his visiting daughter (Liv Tyler).
The miracle of this film is the way that it avoids any of the clichés that almost inevitably arise in this sort of thing. The central character, whose past is littered with mistakes that have cost him, and more importantly his family, dearly, seems fundamentally disinterested in atoning for his past sins – indeed he seems willing to exploit the emotional damage that these sins have caused when necessary. Despite all this, the film has been crafted meticulously enough that such indiscretions do not discourage the viewer. Indeed, they simply add to the texture and lovability of the former cat-burglar, who has assigned himself the task of raiding the house of a patronising “yuppie” (Jeremy Strong) who’s recently moved into the neighbourhood.
The other major cliché that often arises in these films (AI, Bicentennial Man, I, Robot) is the notion of the robot that develops a consciousness and becomes ‘alive’. I won’t go into details, suffice to say that this film carefully avoids such notions, emphatically separating itself from movies focussed on this notion of artificial life (not that there is anything essentially wrong with those films). This point is made hilariously in a scene in which two robots are made to interact under instructions that each should pretend the other is human. It should also be mentioned that the robots in this film are ironically modelled on an archaic notion of what a robot should look like. They would be quite at home on the set of the original Star Trek.
Aside from a misstep towards the end of the third act, the film deals intelligently with the realities of Alzheimer’s and its inevitable consequences, never electing to offer sentimentality as a relief or refusal to acknowledge these consequences. Langella is typically marvellous in the role of the fading cat-burglar; Sarsgaard does great work in keeping his robot both lovable and cold; while Sarandon, Marsden and Tyler all deliver solid performances. Jeremy Strong also does an exceptional job of being hateable in the role of the obnoxious yuppie who’s into retro things… like libraries.
Hats off should go to the cinematographer, Matthew J. Lloyd, whose work echoes Emmanuel Lubezki’s on The Tree of Life.