Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Robot & Frank"

 3 / 5 

Robot & Frank is a genial, unsurprising little film that plays a little bit like Short Circuit for the senior set.  It's entirely dependent on the central performance of Frank Langella, and he's completely winning as an old curmudgeon who comes to depend on technology in unexpected ways.

It's set in the convenient near future, a time that looks more or less like ours but has just enough differences to suit the slight, pleasant story.  One of those differences is that robotic technology has advanced enough to make robots acceptable substitutes for humans in everyday life.  This should put to rest the Republican concerns about using undocumented workers as hired help.

One of those robots is put into service as a health-care aid for Frank, a retired but not reformed cat burglar who has started suffering from a bit of dementia -- the last place he broke into was his own house.  He doesn't want the robot, it's a guilt-reducing exercise by his too-busy son (James Marsden), and the presence of the little mechanized man incurs the wrath of Frank's liberal-minded, globe-trotting daughter (Liv Tyler), who interrupts her travels to Turkmenistan to Skype with Frank and tell him how accepting the gift is contributing to a variety of earth-shaking declines.

But the reality is, robots are taking over everything, even working in the local library, as Frank discovers on one of his daily trips to see the pretty, almost age-appropriate librarian (Susan Sarandon).  Her job and the library itself are being taken over by a tech-happy little twerp.  Frank doesn't like this, and he doesn't like the robot, and both of these frustrations come together in the film.

The story isn't much, and it's contrived in such a way that the two plot strands will come together in ways that defy credulity in many ways.  If the film were bigger and more ambitious, that might be troublesome -- but it's hard to be offended by anything that happens in Robot & Frank, it's too little and too airy a concoction.

Frank doesn't like the robot, whose borderline-twee voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard, but they come to an understanding and, wouldn't you know it, by the end of the movie they're friends.  They've also gotten themselves into a little caper, the kind that can only happen in the small East Coast towns in which these kinds of films are invariably set.

The considerable charms of Robot & Frank are supplied almost entirely by Langella, whose determination to be self-sufficient is like a large, male version of Driving Miss Daisy.  Indeed, Robot & Frank bears much resemblance to that little gem, if Miss Daisy and Hoke had decided to embark on a caper or two.  But Robot & Frank is not particularly thought-provoking or moving, it's just a charming lark, anchored by the considerable presence -- both in character and in physical appearance -- of Langella.

There's absolutely nothing new here, but it's cute and engaging nonetheless.

Viewed Sept. 2, 2012 -- Sundance Cinemas West Hollywood

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