Robot & Frank, 2012, 3 ¼ stars

Intelligence anything but artificial in director’s debut

Robot & FrankFrom The Orlando Weekly, September 28, 2012

It’s been quite the year for first-time directors, with Benh Zeitlin getting most of the attention for Beasts of the Southern Wild. But although Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is not quite the unique attention-grabber on the scale of Beasts, it deserves praise for a touching and subtle commentary on aging, family and friendship in a world dominated by technology.

In an extremely convincing but not overdone “near future,” Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired, long-divorced jewel thief living alone in upstate New York, fiercely guarding his privacy and independence. He’s also doing his best to hide early-onset Alzheimer’s from his two kids. But when the weekly drive to visit his cantankerous father becomes too much, the son does what any loving offspring in mid-21st-century America would do: He buys his dad a robot to serve as companion, cook and housekeeper.

But Robot soon becomes a different type of helper. In a clever commentary on morality and the limitations of artificial intelligence, Frank soon realizes that his fiberglass friend (thankfully not computer-generated) is perfectly suited to burglary, and it isn’t long before the two are attempting a major grab. It seems Robot, while being programmed with the definitions of “steal” and other crimes, can’t quite grasp their practicality and is concerned only with tasks that bring mental health and joy to Frank.

Schreier and writer Christopher Ford, also in his feature-film debut, create a compelling tale not because we’re fascinated by the technology that allows Robot to exist – a technology still just slightly beyond our reach in 2012 – but because their story of growing old is one we already know, just told in a fascinatingly new way. The film does show a lot of the muddle and drift typical of a new director, but thanks to a couple of touching little twists in its third act, we’re left mostly satisfied.

The supporting cast is competent, with James Marsden and Liv Tyler as the children, and Susan Sarandon as a friend, but this film belongs to Langella. Few actors portray the endearing curmudgeon in quite the same touching and comical way. His performances in Dave, Frost/Nixon (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and even The Box, a subpar film he nevertheless made much better, all are noteworthy, but this may be his finest screen work. Peter Sarsgaard’s voiceover as Robot is pitch perfect, too, as he adds his name to the pantheon of great but slightly creepy computer concoctions, alongside Douglas Rain’s Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Kevin Spacey’s GERTY in Moon.

Even more intellectually challenging than the story itself is the film’s contention that a machine is able to adapt to new tasks in order to help its patient while a human is frozen in a single behavior pattern, unable to reprogram himself and wipe clean his brain’s criminal tendencies. And in a still greater display of irony, a movie about a robot ends up showing more humanity than most films you’ll see all year.

Copyright 2012 © Orlando Weekly