16 April 2013

ROBOT & FRANK- Review

I've been wanting to see Robot & Frank ever since the first trailer appeared online, last summer. To all intents and purposes, its quirky premise looked a bit like a Pixar movie that had somehow escaped from their studios in Emeryville and became a live-action version instead. The trailer alone ran the gamut from comedy to heist movie, through both dramatic moments and adorableness- having finally got to see it, did it stand up to my anticipation?

When we first meet Frank, he's absent-mindedly robbing his own house in the middle of the night. He lives alone in the woods, though his grown-up children check in on him every now and again. His son, Hunter, has even gone out of his way to visit every week, and it's over the course of these visits that he's noticed his father's condition depreciating. With that in mind, he brings him a robot butler, programmed with the goal of looking after Frank and improving his mental and physical health, to take the strain off himself and his own young family. Little does he realise that Frank's boredom will soon give way to a more ingenious use for the robot.

Robot & Frank is set in the near future, and the level of dystopia that it has reached is only relative to the amount of time that has passed. Seniors like Frank, and his librarian crush, Jennifer, are looked upon with patronising fondness by sickly hipsters, who see anything as traditional as the written word as quaint and retro. Also, robots! But the near future of the film is realised with such modest strokes, that characterise both a tightly-budgeted sci-fi script, and a character-driven piece. And just because the film centres around the latter half of its titular odd couple, it doesn't mean we have to like him.

Frank is a fantastically ornery old bastard. There's very little that's kindly about him, and he's only getting more cantankerous as his mental state becomes less stable. Although Hunter isn't in the movie much, you feel for him, in any scene in which his father treats him like crap, and yet Frank Langella's performance keeps you invested in Frank all the way through the film. Well, that and his chemistry with the robot, which goes from hostility to affection in a suspiciously short order, once Frank realises that he can use the mechanical helper as a tool to kick-start his career as a cat burglar.

Whatever his initial motivations, Frank's interactions with the machine form a crucial part of the film. Peter Sarsgaard voices the robot with a similar inflection to Kevin Spacey's GERTY, from Moon, and coupled with the prop design, the character gives Langella a good sounding board for his performance. The principal theme of the film is loss of knowledge- due to the nature of his electronic memory, the robot's implication in larceny is just as dangerous to personality as Frank's mental condition. And in the world around them, the younger generation are clearly all set to discard physical contact and upload themselves, even if that development would take place a little further into the future than this film covers.

Truthfully, the film loses something in dropping down a gear and becoming a more bittersweet tale. Early on, there's a lot of great comedy from Frank's reactions to the robot, and from the robot's own deadpan snarky manoeuvres around his owner's stubbornness. It ensures that we're all fully on board when the tone unfurls to reveal a slightly more poignant film, but still becomes markedly less enjoyable near the very end. There are still a couple of laughs, late in the day, but there's a more consistent attention to detail throughout, which still comfortably puts this in the esteemed ranks of other recent lo-fi sci-fi indies.

Robot & Frank represents something of a decline in its lead character, but despite the plot arc curving downwards after a time, the film itself is bursting with energy. Aside from a delightfully mischievous and occasionally nasty performance from Frank Langella, it's never overwhelmed by its own brilliant premise. The use of the robot character is more representative of the film as a whole- well realised and charming, but not so overwhelmed by the imagination that it required that it forgets to be fun. It's effortlessly charming, and even if some might have preferred for it to be entirely light-hearted, it both earns its more poignant moments, and succeeds by including them.

Robot & Frank is showing at Stockton's ARC cinema from Friday, until Thursday 25th April. The film will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, later this year.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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