Robot and Frank: Gentle and Honest
In a world where drivers take instruction from tiny boxes on their dashboards, where computers facilitate socializing more than face-to-face contact, and where celebrities from Zooey Deschanel to Martin Scorsese encourage us to treat our phones as friends, the line between man and machine is increasingly blurred. Robot & Frank, premiering Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, is a beautifully constructed dramedy that explores this theme: As technology more closely mimics the traits of people, are we fools for believing in their humanness?
Set in woodsy Cold Spring, New York, in the "near future," the film opens on the main character, Frank (Frank Langella), an aging former cat burglar and an ornery father of two adult children. He lives in a dirty and disheveled country home, matching the disheveled last years of his life. His old-man mind gets snagged on certain memories: He asks to go to Harry's, his favorite restaurant, which closed 30 years ago, and he still thinks his son, Hunter (James Marsden), now a successful professional and a father of two, is enrolled in undergrad at Princeton. He also frequently engages in petty shoplifting. (Cat- and dog-shaped bath soaps are his favorite targets.)
To alleviate the heavy burden that Frank's increasing instability places on the family, Hunter gives Dad his very own helper robot, an eggshell-white model that looks like a five-foot-tall astronaut from Legoland. At first, Frank is alternately confused and furious about the imposition.
"What are you?" Frank asks the robot.
"I'm a robot," answers the 'bot, whom Frank refuses to name.
"Oh, yeah. How are you?" Frank replies.
"Today we are going to start a garden."
"Fuck this shit!"
Frank begrudgingly puts up with the robot's nannying — adhering to the routine and vegan diet it imposes — until he discovers a glitch in the machine's programming: a lack of concern for the law and a malleable code of ethics. Frank learns to exploit his new partner in crime and, in the process, reigntes his zest for life. But something else happens too. As he socializes with the automaton — talks to it, listens to it, and comes to trust and depend on it — he develops feelings for it that one would normally reserve for the living.
Supporting characters such as Frank's kids, Hunter and Madison (Liv Tyler); the object of Frank's senile affections, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon); and patronizing, rich hipster Jake (Jeremy Strong) add depth to this man-meets-machine story. The film's most outstanding roles, though, are the ones in its title.
The robot, impressively, is not a machine at all; it's performer Rachael Ma wearing a robot suit, voiced by actor Peter Sarsgaard. Langella, as the stubborn elderly man with deteriorating mental capabilities, is in denial about his decline, defending his autonomy one minute and guilt-tripping his daughter about not taking care of him the next. Langella brilliantly balances the tension between Frank's ruthlessness and kindness, helplessness and capability, without overplaying the cute-and-crazy-old-guy shtick.
With the help of his robot, Frank becomes obsessed with reviving his glamorous days as a high-stakes criminal, almost derailing the film's deeper explorations: Is it wrong to love machines that mimic man, and to what degree does a person disappear when his memories vanish? Those questions are thankfully brought back to the fore when Frank is forced to make a decision about his robot's fate, and in a jarring and tragic flicker of realization about his past with Jennifer toward the film's end.
It's easy to get lost in this gentle and honest story, and that's OK. But when the lights come up, be sure to discuss it with your date, not your car's GPS.
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