Robot & Frank

by Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

EXPECTATIONS: I'm going to see this movie completely alone. I mean, I see most movies alone, but there's a specific reason this time. It's quite simple: Movies about old people are usually sad. Movies about robots are always sad. I fully expect to spend the latter half of this film in the corner bawling. I mean, full on mewling, so that I have to walk out the theater saying to my fellow patrons "Man, who was that horrible parent who brought a six-year old girl to the theater? Right? I mean, I couldn't make that noise, I'm a man. A manly man. A full-grown man.... with a heart."

REALITY: Before I begin this review, I need to point out that writer Christopher Ford has the greatest IMDB trivia section I have ever seen. There. Now that's out of the way.

I seem to have been blessed with quality films lately. Not just quality, but thoughtful, introspective films. I'm almost afraid to point this out because if Ian knows I'm happy, he'll make me watch The Oogieloves, but I'm counting my blessings. That said, Robot & Frank is a wonderful reminder that a film doesn't have to be complicated to be good.

Yes, but which is which?

Frank Langella plays the titular Frank, a retired jewel thief who lives alone in upstate New York. When we first meet Frank, he is breaking into his own house. In fact, Frank is often slipping into his old habits, shoplifting soaps and dog figurines for no reason on his daily trips to flirt with his favorite librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). For a bit, we can believe that Frank is only doing these things out of boredom, but because the film must achieve sufficient tearjerkiness, he is actually suffering from the early stages of senile dementia. Unable to properly care for his father, Frank's son (James Marsden) provides him with a robotic caretaker creatively named Robot (Rachael Ma, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Frank initially doesn't care for his new companion, but then makes a startling discovery: The robot has no concept of stealing, which seems like a major design flaw to me, but let's go with it. Seizing the opportunity, Frank utilizes Robot over a series of heists, treating them as "intellectual exercises."

Robot and Frank doesn't cover any new ground; instead, it takes several old cliches and puts them together in original ways, and that's almost reassuring. There are several "Odd Couple" moments through Frank and Robot's partnership, but the highlights are when Frank is in full heist-planning mode, and Robot is the skeptical partner. We see several crime-movie standbys, like the beautiful phrase "The window is closing. Are you in or out?" which has been said by roughly 1,000 film characters, but never before has it been said to a robot. That's the majority of the film, really. "Here's something you've seen before... NOW WITH ROBOTS!" This is not a bad thing, though, because the film fully embraces this. The designs of the other robots are clunky and ridiculous, as though they came from the cover of a school-library copy of an Asimov book. This universe is basically what the 1970s thought the 2000s would be like, where everything is basically the same, but we all have robots. It's a silly, ridiculous setting, and I love it.

Hey, remember this guy from those X-Men movies? What do you mean "no"?As Frank's mind becomes occupied, his mental state really does improve, so the film decides to sucker-punch you every once in a while and remind you that this man's brain is failing. It's a little manipulative, but it works because Frank Langella's performance is so masterfully heartbreaking. The transition between lucid and rambling is so subtle you don't notice until halfway through a conversation that Frank has begun thinking he's talking to his son, for example.

If that's not enough, the film loves to do the "Do Androids Dream" trope, but again it's slightly different. Robot doesn't have a name for a reason. Robot knows it isn't human, though it has the human abilities of reasoning, bargaining, and lying. In fact, Robot constantly reminds Frank that any emotion he shows is simply a matter of Frank's perception, making Frank slightly uncomfortable. It also slightly mocks the audience "Don't get emotionally attached to Robot, it's a damn robot. Oh, did I make Robot an endearing character you actually care about? Sorry, I guess." It's an interesting take on the concept, and it's honestly downright refreshing. Compare this to say, Star Trek:The Next Generation's Data, also known as The Worst Android In Sci-Fi's annoying "Oh how I desire to have human emotions" shtick. DESIRE IS AN EMOTION, DATA, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, YOU WHINY-ASS SPREADSHEET OF AUTISM. (Sorry about that, folks, but seriously, screw Data.)

Robot & Frank draws on the history of multiple genres and blends them together in a way that's sweet, sad, and simple. It's nice to see a film that is intelligent, but not inaccessible. The themes are there to support the story, not overshadow them, which has been the case with most of the films I've seen lately. Oh, and you will probably cry a little bit. At least you will... if you're not a ROBOT. Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week.

Data SucksDeal With it!

MINORITY REPORT: Judge Dredd wouldn't stand for any of this breakin'-and-enterin' malarkey. He'd probably have that robot melted down to be made into shoulder pads and belt buckles too, just because he can. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

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