mon 14/10/2019

Robot & Frank | reviews, news & interviews

Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank

Frank Langella beguiles in a disarmingly oddball but lightweight drama

Jumble of elements: Frank Langella plus co-lead in 'Robot and Frank'

We've hardly gone wanting for big-screen robots of late – Michael Fassbender's inpenetrable cyborg was the best thing in Ridley Scott's overly ponderous Prometheus last year, while many have argued that Pixar reached its pinnacle with disarming robot-rom WALL-E in 2008. But with this oddball debut, director Jake Schreier is reaching for something different, something smaller and lonelier and more human, and if he never quite grasps it his pursuit makes for compelling viewing. 

The eponymous Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired cat burglar, living alone and succumbing to dementia in a not-too-distant future where society has become dependent on robots. He's alienated by their prevalence, furious at the discovery that his local library is to be overhauled and staffed by bots rather than people, and responds about as well as you'd expect when his concerned son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a "robot companion", to help with domestic tasks and provide therapeutic care. 

Robot himself (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) is intriguingly sinister to look at – a black glass plate sits in place of facial features, and we learn early on that he has "no off switch" – a choice which adds bleak dimension to what could otherwise be a sentimental arc. It comes as no surprise when Frank gradually softens to Robot; their peculiar bond, with all that it conveys about loneliness and the desire for connnection, recalls Douglas Trumbull's touchingly simple Silent Running (1972).

Frank Langella and Liv Tyler in Robot & FrankBut Frank is an altogether slippier and more sly customer than Bruce Dern's gentle botanist, and this is where the "robots are a man's best friend" strand does diverge from the expected path. It turns out his jewellery-thieving days are not as far behind him as initially indicated, and the pair become partners in crime as Frank turns Robot's lack of moral programming to his own advantage. While this turn of events has a certain outlandish appeal, screenwriter Christopher D Ford leans heavily on the farce at the expense of really delving into the sadness at the heart of his story. 

Langella's wily, charismatic lead turn is what holds this jumble of elements together; it's a testament to any actor when their scenes with a faceless robot are more compelling than their moments with fellow performers, although this is partially down to just how thinly drawn this supporting cast is. Liv Tyler (pictured above with Langella) shows up for a spell as Frank's do-gooder daughter Madison, a role that veers with such baffling frequency into caricature that you sense Ford must have intended it. Marsden fares better as the long-suffering Hunter, as does Susan Sarandon as a thwarted love interest, but it's perhaps by design that none of the people in Frank's life feel half as real as his robot companion. 

Using its core sci-fi trope as a jumping off point for intimate, delicately drawn character drama in a way that recalls last year's extraordinarily touching Safety Not GuaranteedRobot & Frank nonetheless feels like a story in search of an emotional pay-off. The final act has the feeling of a punch pulled, resorting to a familiar twist that doesn't land with the impact it should. 

Leans heavily on farce at the expense of delving into the sadness at the heart of its story

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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