Robot and Frank is a film unlike any you are likely to see this year; a curious belter of a quasi-sci-fi comedy that’s packed with a wealth of heart and led by an astonishing lead performance from Frank Langella. This is among the more pragmatic, even realistic futures we’ve seen on film recently; this is a not-so-distant future that clearly resembles our own, but is simply adorned with futuristic flourishes such as shinier cars and giant video phone screens.
Frank (Langella), a retired jewel thief, is fighting against the tide of dementia in his old age, though adamantly refuses to go to a care facility, so his guilt-ridden son (James Marsden) instead buys him a robot butler, much to his dismay. However, when he realises that the robot isn’t programmed with a sense of the law – a slight contrivance, admittedly – he decides to use his android servant for more exciting means, plotting to steal prized books from a local library that is to be demolished by a wealthy land developer.
Here’s a film that, at 89 minutes, doesn’t waste a single one of them, digging right into the meat of its premise. Christopher D. Ford’s snappy screenplay keeps the laughs coming thick and fast, with Frank’s new pal – voiced with hilarious composure by Peter Sarsgaard – getting the lion’s share of the zingers, though Langella, delivering a sublime performance, isn’t far behind either. The weird and wonderful script indulges its cutesy quirks, but also has a lot of truth about it, particularly with regard to how we aim to weather the effects of ageing; it is suggested here that keeping busy is the best way. Also, Ford briefly and concisely examines robot politics, the notion that a machine does not appreciate its own “existence” because its so-called “memories” are merely lines of code. Frank, eventually becoming attached to the robot, struggles to come to terms with this and is clearly uncomfortable discussing it.
And what a wonderfully weird odd couple the pair of them are; it’s such a breath of fresh air, and given how little Frank appears to have in common with his grown-up children, his assertion that the robot is, in fact, his friend is a genuinely moving one. Thanks to Jake Schreier’s lithe, sensitive direction – striking for a feature debut – Robot and Frank is able to waltz between uproarious comedy and emotive drama, leading to a realistic ending which promises no miracles, and is all the more admirable for it.
An hysterically funny, breathlessly paced and moving meditation on old age and existence, topped by an award-worthy turn from Frank Langella. One of the year’s best.
Robot and Frank is released in UK cinemas March 8th, 2013.
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