POPCORN: “Robot & Frank”

An Electrical Connection

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


Well, this is a real treat… one that ardent moviegoers will want to include on their dance card. In “Robot & Frank,” set in the near future, Frank Langella gives a touching demonstration in the subtleties of reality. Multilayered yet exquisite in its simplicity, his semi-retired cat burglar at a major turning point is sweet, sour and provocatively honest.

Directed by Jake Schreier from a screenplay by Christopher D. Ford, both members of the Brooklyn-based Waverly Films cadre and earlier anointed with the Alfred P. Sloan award at Sundance, it is a character-driven gem. Just doing what he’s been doing for five decades, Mr. Langella again puts himself in position for an Academy Award nomination.

Whether a result of good dramatic savvy from this primarily stage actor or a function of our own fickle subjectivity, we like this fellow human. After all, as he mutteringly notes whilst explaining it to Robot, almost every bauble he’s ever filched has been strictly high end, and it didn’t hurt anyone but the insurance companies…those no good so-and-sos.

Yep, ex-con or not, Frank features himself as strictly class, an expert in his field, and he now has, thanks to his son Hunter’s (James Marsden) concerns, a robotic caretaker whom he may regale of his exploits. Indeed, he recalls them in every detail, even if he doesn’t remember that Harry’s, his favorite hometown eatery in Cold Spring, N.Y., is no more.

Now there’s the rub, or at least one of them, the bitter icing on the cake. Divorced lo these thirty years, assumably for obvious reasons, Frank is apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s, though you’d be pretty hard put to diagnose it. After all, this is a man who has lived by his wits, and not one to pass up a resource, positive or seemingly negative.

It takes us a while to grok his MO, mostly because Frank may not be in conscious control of all his newest mechanisms…particularly his variation on playing possum. His kids, the aforementioned Hunter, who Frank continually asks about Princeton (though he’s long graduated) and the tree hugging Madison (Liv Tyler), are lovingly aggravated.

But what we come away with on first blush is that, despite claims of excess childhood baggage, especially from Hunter, these are good children and responsible citizens, their Dad’s occupation notwithstanding. Yeah, things are never quite clear-cut or simple, and require careful examination, which is why it’s much easier to be prejudiced than tolerant.

Tossed into this philosophical mix, upping the ante in the highfalutin treatise on value judgment, is the introduction of Robot, a whimsical deus ex machina meant to bring not only safety and succor to Frank’s existence, but objectivity…supposedly. It’s quite a matching, a parrying of diverse minds that segues into a dissertation on friendship.

But here’s the deal. You see, Frank wants to “go out clean” as he puts it…meaning, from what we gather in his eyes when he waxes of it, to do one last great heist: a job so perfect that it transcends mere burglary. No, this will not only be his pièce de résistance, but an achievement so elegant, so platonically perfect that it will stand as his life’s vindication.

Which is why, after initially railing against the invasion of Robot, he hatches a scheme. He will make a confederate of the machine, authoritatively voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. But not so fast, says Robot, who is programmed for Frank’s welfare. He agrees to be impressed into service by the second-story man only if Frank accedes to a low salt diet.

With only a moment’s hesitation, Frank accepts. Now they are partners in crime. The tutelage begins. Soon Robot is an expert lock picker, and cute as heck as he embraces the occupational lingo. And, as is so often the case with unusual affiliations, the camaraderie formed is far more profound than the intended purpose. The ensuing tête-à-tête charms.

Hip professors of ethics may want to include for dissection portions of the dialogue between the thief and his apprentice as right, wrong and rationale are humorously and intellectually rummaged with Socratic aplomb. Succinct yet smart, and interspersed with dark as well as giddy truths, the writing and Mr. Langella’s intuition sublimely meld.

Oh, and there’s a twist involving a pretty woman. Though not a great film in and of itself, Langella’s tour de force makes “Robot & Frank” a fascinating étude in the art and wiles of aging. And while his mechanical co-star is only called Robot, if my crystal ball is right, it’d be nice to dub him Oscar, after the award Mr. Langella will win February 24.

“Robot & Frank,” rated PG-13, is a Samuel Goldwyn Films release directed by Jake Schreier and stars Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard. Running time: 89 minutes