Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dementia, family, humor, humanity, art: Schreier/Ford's singular ROBOT & FRANK

On its own merits -- and there many of them -- the new film (his first full-length) from director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford -- succeeds mightily. What makes ROBOT & FRANK so particularly surprising and welcome, however, is how it avoids the trap of sentimentality that seems to be waiting around every corner in this tale of an old man's renewal via -- yes -- a robot.

This old man, Frank, is played by Frank Langella (above) in perhaps the first screen role in which he manages to completely curtail his penchant for grand-standing. An actor with roots planted firmly in the legitimate theater, Langella, with his extra-long body, bedroom eyes and mellifluous voice, has always commanded the stage, from The Immoralist through Dracula and beyond. So while grand-standing may have come easily, it has always arrived. As the actor has grown older, we've seen less of it (on film, at least; I no longer attend legit theater), though it still popped up a bit in his relatively recent Starting Out in the Evening. There's usually always a whiff (or more) of self-satisfaction in his presentation.

In Robot & Frank, however, the peculiar combination of character (who Frank is spills out slowly, piecemeal) age, condition and circumstance allows the actor, with the help of his writer/director, to remain strong and commanding, even as he is failing and flailing. This mixture is dynamite; it keeps us forever on our toes, just as it does the actor himself -- who is as good here as he has ever been. Surely, "Oscar" will come calling, once the New Year arrives.

The film is set, as a title card tells us up front, in "the near future." Senior citizen and full-time curmudgeon Frank needs help, but his son Hunter (James Marsden, above, right) has grown tired of the long trip back and forth to see him. Daughter Madison (Liv Tyler, below, right) spends her time traveling the world "doing good." So Hunter brings dad a very complicated but helpful robot (voiced immaculately by Peter Sarsgaard) to take care of him.

Frank, of course, is having none of this. So, do we simply twiddle our thumbs until the feel-good, man-loves-robot ending arrives? Hardly. Nothing is quite as it seems at first glance in this film. As writer, Mr. Ford (and my apologies to this guy, as I earlier mistakenly attributed the screenplay to the film's director) is constantly surprising us and pulling us up short, even as he entertains us. And if filmmaker Schreier, shown at right, still has things to learn in the directing department (and of course he does: this is his first full-lengther), fortunately he's also gifted enough at this point to handle his directing duties with an aplomb that carries us over the finish line.

Schreier draws fine performances from his entire cast, which includes smart turns from Jeremy Sisto as the town's sheriff, Jeremy Strong as the town's yuppie du jour, and especially Susan Sarandon (above, right) as the town's friendly librarian.

Since this is a "robot" movie, you'll expect of course a theme involving humanity.  You get it -- and more -- but it won't come via any heavy-duty "message." Everything's embedded in the believable, often funny dialog, and that "humanity," when it arrives, is all concerned with Frank. The rush of emotion you may feel over the concluding few moments, I think, will have less to do with anything so standard as a feel-good message and more with having witnessed a piece of very fine film-making.

Robot & Frank -- 90 minutes long and from Samuel Goldwyn Films -- opens this Friday, August 17, in New York City at the Paris Theater and the Angelika Film Center. The following week it hits L.A. and environs and will then make its way across the country in the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters.

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