Film Reviews

Man’s new best friend

Langella shines in Robot & Frank

I know, I know. A buddy movie about an old man and his companion robot? Get outta here. Platitudes and bromides and growing love between a curmudgeon (Frank Langella, never better) and an androgynous-voiced bio-servant (Peter Sarsgaard, sly and funny)? Count us out, right? Who needs it?

The biggest surprise of the movie season, this 93-minute indie starts off only okay. It’s the “near future” and slightly faltering Frank, rattling around in his empty house, has been given a robot by his son. Frank is as alienated by the (unnamed) robot as by his own children, but he finds a wonderful new use for the mechanical wonder: A retired jewel thief, Frank plans to use the machine-man as an accomplice. However, the next-door neighbor becomes suspicious and brings in the authorities.

So it’s a buddy comedy, eh? Nope. This movie has something much bigger in mind, but we can’t guess, so adroit is this movie. Along for the plot are a town librarian (Susan Sarandon), Frank’s children (Liv Tyler and James Marsden) and a couple of cops.

Frank Langella has turned into a beloved elder great actor (did you catch his performance in the ill-fated The Box?) who controls this movie beautifully, without cheating. The movie is neither broad nor obvious–it moves stealthily along, tongue in several cheeks, until it decides to pull the rug out from under everyone. It’s a legitimate surprise, the best of our movie season. The movie you start out liking pleasantly turns into a movie that will touch you and make you a thoughtful admirer. It has “literary” quality, and surprising depth.

How do movies this intelligent get made, and then released in early fall? Seemingly light and maybe a little coy, Robot & Frank turns itself into a true rumination about the near future.

Certain clues are provided. The pre-title sequence shows a cat burglar breaking into a house; it turns out to be Frank breaking into his own house. He thinks he’s practicing for the next real job, but is his memory playing some sort of game? The robot tells him his memory is actually getting better. Is the mechanical man in on the con?

This movie probably won’t hang around very long, so you might want to check it out ASAP. Think of it as an adventure. It gets one up on Oscar season because wily, talented Langella is sure to be nominated, and he deserves it.

Bob Green was production consultant for Samsara, a 70mm film currently playing worldwide.