Thursday Movie Club
Frank and Robot - trailer
Concerned he can no longer live alone, the children of Frank buy him a robot to take care of him.
Boasting a delightful, insightful blend of old-school flourishes delivered with a thoroughly modern finish, this polished debut from first-timers Jake Schreier and Christopher Ford tackles issues of ageing and identity rarely seen on screen.
That it's told with such style and grace is thanks largely to an exquisitely underplayed performance from veteran Frank Langella. The actor - best known to audiences as either Dracula or Nixon, depending on one's vintage - here plays the eponymous Frank: a retired cat-burglar living quietly in upstate New York, who's battling the onset of dementia.
His dreamy daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), Skypes him from some vague philanthropic effort in a far-flung location.
Aged 70, with his modest home in disarray, Frank evidently can no longer take care of himself.
Enter Frank's son, Hunter (James Marsden), who has grown tired of routine 10-hour round trips to check up on him. Frank refuses to be institutionalised, so Hunter offers him a solution from the trunk of his car. Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) has a simple function: to serve Frank as cleaner, cook and carer. And once he realises the unit has no ethical capacity beyond loyalty to its user, Frank spies an opportunity and reluctantly agrees.
A dramatic buddy comedy offering hints of classic heist films and a dash of would-be romance, Robot & Frank succeeds in its straightforward setting thanks to Langella's uncanny reading of the wily ex-con.
Frank can't resist shoplifting trinkets (and soap) from the local store. Neither does he hide his attraction for the sassy local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who is about to lose her job thanks to an oily financier's upgrade at work.
The fun kicks in when, in an effort to impress her, Frank begins plotting to steal a priceless copy of Don Quixote before the library closes. For good measure, he also plans to lift some precious stones from the financier's house, which happens to be next door.
Years of experience in the game come flooding back as Frank gets under way. His new accomplice, Robot, appears to be a perfect partner in crime.
Pitched as a sort of good-natured HAL 9000 - the filmmakers actually modelled Robot on real prototypes being tested in Japan - it obeys what its master commands, provided the actions are not detrimental to Frank's health.
(Rather aptly, a female dancer, Rachael Ma, inhabited the suffocatingly hot Robot costume, with Langella's nephew delivering its lines on set. Sarsgaard's dry one-liners were added later, in post-production.) Langella's remarkable performance makes it all look seamless throughout.
Robot & Frank deservedly won at Sundance, albeit in a minor category. It's a subtle, good-natured ride with a gentle bite, and its themes resonate strongly. Issues of identity, family and memory are touched on with efficiency. It pitches technology not as a malevolent (or benevolent) force but as inevitable. As it points out to its master, Robot is neither friend nor foe but merely serving the function it's been programmed to do. Amusingly, as Frank ups the stakes with his latest ''job'', so matters grow more farcical; the police are soon on his tail and Frank's son is inadvertently drawn into his father's scheming.
Frank himself even feigns illness to get what he wants; this loveable old rogue isn't going down without a fight. For the time being, he's inspired again to succeed. An unexpected, touching twist rounds things off nicely.
The filmmakers behind this likeable romp hail from backgrounds in music video and commercials - a common rite of passage, given today's tough economic climate for independent filmmakers - and have been patiently developing it in various forms over the past decade. Their traditional-meets-high-tech aesthetic was aided and developed by the Los Angeles effects company Alterian, which created Robot (having designed costumes for electronica outfit Daft Punk).
Tumblr's Justin Ouellette apparently came up with the designs for the futuristic smartphones and tablets.
Because of all this, the film's appeal is far broader than might seem evident at first. And given the poignant, deftly handled topic at its core, it proves an unusual, almost low-key achievement, one that belies its considerable strengths. A quiet delight.
Robot & Frank opens in Australian cinemas today.
Also opening today:
Two Little Boys: Black comedy starring Flight of the Conchords favourite Brett McKenzie and Hamish Blake. According to one Daily Life staffer, this is a contender for worst movie of the year. You've been warned.
The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn: Part 2: If you don't know what this is, you've been living in a dark hole for the past five years and you should seek medical attention.