Saturday, August 25, 2012

Robot & Frank

The near-future fantasy comedy “Robot & Frank” stars Frank Langella as a senile septuagenarian ex-con who lives by himself in a small rural town in New York. His successful son, Hunter, resents having to drive from the city and back every weekend, and his daughter’s off doing research in Turkmenistan, so one weekend Hunter brings a health-care robot to clean and cook for Frank and attend to his well-being. The first half-hour of this slight, 90-minute movie consists largely of crotchety Frank trash-talking and attempting to disengage Robot (“I don’t have an off switch, Frank”) before an idea occurs to him.

Frank’s the most regular regular at the public library – he’s read most of the books three times and now comes mostly to hit on the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) – which is being gutted and digitized by a bunch of nouveau-riche yuppies led by Jake (Jeremy Strong). Jake’s organizing a big party at the library, where all the wives will be wearing expensive jewelry, and Frank, who specialized in stealing diamonds and gems, enlists Robot’s lock-picking and combination-solving skills to help pull off one last big score.

The plot is a drag on “Robot & Frank,” and the material involving Frank’s mostly well-meaning but far from selfless children goes nowhere. Sarandon is atypically appealing in some early scenes, but her character is a dead end, with a late revelation that doesn’t pack the punch it should. Strong’s performance is especially poor, a cartoon of arriviste arrogance. Some other good actors are also wasted: Jeremy Sisto, a perennial favorite of mine, as the town sheriff, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of Robot.

It’s basically a two-man show, and the best moments in “Robot & Frank” involve the back-and-forth between the title characters. Each has a few very funny lines – less so the purely antagonistic ones, more so when they’re reluctantly working together – and there’s a Chaplinesque physical comedy to the sight of the two of them, Robot in a space helmet and black cape, climbing the rooftop of Jake’s house to case the joint. Langella – however much one appreciates his talent – has never been what you’d call warm, but he shows more vulnerability here than usual, and I liked his performance.

Though Robot repeatedly reminds Frank that he’s not human and does not feel emotions as we do, by the time Frank must decide whether to erase Robot’s memory, which could be used against him, or face imprisonment, the moment achieves a surprising tension and poignancy. This one’s a close call – you certainly won’t be pained if you do go – but just enough more stuff doesn’t work than does to make it a close pass.

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