Robot & Frank shows us that a small film can be great, as can a small robot. Director Jake Schreier’s feature debut is anything but small when it comes to acting, story, and directing.
The film, which takes place in the near future, is a tour de force for Frank Langella, winner of too many Tonys, Oscars, Golden Globes, and other awards to list. Langella, who plays a retired cat burglar, is on screen 90 percent of the time. He is admirably assisted by James Marsden (Enchanted, Superman Returns), Liv Tyler (Lord of the Rings, One Night at McCool’s) and Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon.
Langella’s character, also conveniently named Frank, is suffering memory loss and his two kids, played by Marsden and Tyler, want to put him in a nursing home. He resists, so his son buys him a humanoid robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard (Orphan, Rendition, Kinsey), programmed to improve him physically and mentally. The robot’s efforts bear fruit, but not in a way anyone had anticipated.
Langella deals with Frank’s memory and old-age problems convincingly. As I watched, I recalled the struggles my own mother had as her brain began to fail her, and, as I am now 60-plus, some of Frank’s challenges hit too close to home. Langella, 71 years old himself, has however lost none of his power as an actor.
I remember seeing him as Mack the Knife in an avant garde production of The Threepenny Opera, in Santa Monica, back in the 1970s. It was a small stage, and for some scenes, the entire audience was moved to a different room and sat in and around the scenery as if they were a part of the production. Langella’s performance was masterful and menacing, and Robot & Frank shows that he has not lost that capability.
For screenwriter C.D. Ford, this is his first produced screenplay. I think it was the power of the story itself that probably attracted Sarandon, Marsden and Tyler to take smaller roles than they normally play. When you write a good enough story, the talent shows up.
Schreier’s direction was excellent. Wait, you’re thinking, what director could look bad with a cast like this? The proof that he knows what he’s doing shows up in a scene when Langella must decide whether to erase the Robot’s memory. You find yourself caring about the little plastic guy.
Also, I was prepared not to like Langella’s character. How can you root for a cat burglar? I did.
And I can attest that, as a player in this life as the 30-something with the old parent and now the old parent with the 30-something kids, the director brought out touching and realistic performances. Maybe Marsden and Tyler could have done it without him, but a bad director could have messed it up.
When I hear Susan Sarandon, I still think: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ve heard she’s done a few things since then (Thelma and Louise, Bull Durham, Alfie, The Banger Sisters, In the Valley of Elah). In Robot & Frank she plays a librarian for whom Frank has an attraction. Her role has a surprise twist in the third act. I want to watch her performance again to see if I missed any foreshadowing of the surprise.
The performances by Jeremy Sisto, as the sheriff, and Jeremy Strong as the antagonist/yuppie who wants to convert Susan Sarandon’s library to a community center are also both strong.
Lots of movies claim to be “hilarious and heartwarming.” This one really is. Robot & Frank, winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance 2012, opened August 17 in New York and opens August 24 in LA.