Movie Review: Robot & Frank
When the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival line-up was released, one film in particular jumped out at me - ROBOT & FRANK. And the first trigger point? Frank Langella, and not just in a supporting role, but as the lead actor. But then I saw the rest of the cast - Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler - and I knew this film had the potential for magic. After seeing the film not just once, but twice because it is so enjoyable, I can safely say that magic is exactly what first time feature director Jake Schreier delivers. Written by Chris Ford, ROBOT & FRANK is rooted in minimalist simplicity, stealing your head and your heart with the same effortless ease the now aging “reformed” second story man Frank steals books and baubles.
Set “right around the corner in the near future”, retired cat burglar Frank Weld lives alone in and old family home in Cold Spring, New York. North of Manhattan, he is far from the maddening crowd and his old second-story ways. His children are grown and gone. Daughter Madison travels the world and communicates with her father via Skype whenever a satellite signal avails itself to her. Rather frenzied and scattered, Madison cares more about the plight of the world than the plight of her father who, it appears, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Son Hunter lives in the city and although takes the laboring oar in checking on his father every few weeks, does so begrudgingly and looks for an easier way to handle the responsibility.
Although Frank has been doing fine on his own with just minimal interference from Hunter, it is clear that dementia is progressing more rapidly as food spoils and sours, the refrigerator and cabinets are empty of food, house is unkempt and filled with trash and most disturbing, Frank’s past is melding with the present and he doesn’t realize it. For Hunter, the solution is an easy one - put Dad into a “memory facility” where he can live out his days in safety and be cared for. But Frank will have none of that and short of having his father declared fully incompetent, Hunter’s hands are tied but for one other option. A robot caregiver. The robot is programmed to monitor the patient’s activities, plan out meals, promote physical activities and keep the patient engaged in the present, by making them more active and healthy. A great solution for Hunter, but Frank is not so keen on the idea. In fact, Frank is vehemently against it. A machine? Telling him, a human being with a mind, what to do? No way.
Under protest, Robot is placed in Frank’s home and it doesn’t take long for Frank and Robot to fall into a very co-dependant and friend based relationship, with Frank developing real emotion towards his mechanical buddy. Before Robot, Frank’s only activity was visiting the local library where he not only got to visit with the lovely librarian, Jennifer, but savor the smell, touch and feel of books. A voracious reader, this was his one passion in his “reformed” life. But just how reformed is Frank when it comes to the impending destruction of the library and the “library experience” and replacement with digitized, holographic community center.
Seems it’s time for Frank to pull one last job and he calls on Robot to help him, thanks in large part to Robot’s lack of programming on morals or judgmental behavior, not to mention Robot’s dexterity and speed at lock picking. They’re going to rob the library and steal a very rare copy of “Don Quixote”, which just happens to also be Jennifer’s favorite item in the library collection. But is one criminal act enough? With his skills rehoned, his juices reinvigorated and Robot as his partner in crime, what else has Frank got up his sleeve?
Who wouldn’t kill to have Frank Langella star in their first feature film? Luckily for Jake Schreier, he’s one of the guys that brought a project to Langella strong enough and “high concept” enough to lure him onboard. Key was that it wasn’t “a silly robot movie” and that Schreier and company were taking the film seriously. And because of that, what a treat for all of us that Langella said yes. With one of the best performances of his storied career, and the highlight since the exquisite “Starting Out In The Evening”, this is Langella’s movie. A very free, very open performance that thrives on immediacy, Langella is captivating as Frank. With no rehearsals and not even a table read before shooting, it was important to Langella to “play it from the heart. I don’t want to really do anything except be real and be in the moment.” And from the heart is what we see. Not a studied performance, every action and reaction of Langella is rooted in reality. You can’t help but see your own parents or grandparents in the same situation, a robotic caregiver forced upon them and into their home, upsetting a lifelong routine balance. But where Langella truly soars are with intimate moments with Robot discussing emotions and memories and laying groundwork for philosophical discussions for the audience on issues like Alzheimer’s, elder care, literacy, the printed word. He sparks something within one just watching this engaging repartee. Infusing conversation with deadpan or snarky, sly intonation is deliciously enjoyable as are father-children debates and arguments with Frank, at times, being the one to stomp his feet pitching a hissy fit. A sheer delight to watch Langella in this tour de force performance.
Schreier gives full credit to Langella for bringing Susan Sarandon into the project to play Jennifer, the town’s librarian. “ To be honest, Susan was Frank’s idea because I don’t think that I ever would have thought we could get her because it wasn’t the top billing. It wasn’t the lead. But she’s just taking whatever interesting parts come her way these days. She’s really doing all kinds of interesting and different stuff.” With a quiet emotional beauty, Sarandon brings and subtle quirkiness and ethereal gentility to Jennifer that magically unfolds, and nevermoreso than when engaging with Langella.
The unseen hero of this story is Peter Sarsgaard who is brilliant as the voice of Robot. With a “2001: A Space Odyssey” tenor, Sarsgaard brings more life to the monotone ruminations and responses of Robot than most people have in their little finger. He makes you laugh, he makes you cry, and when Robot and Frank are engaged in dialogue or embarking on their little crime spree, magic fills the screen.
Joining Frank’s family as Hunter and Madison are James Marsden and Liv Tyler, respectively. With characters as different as night and day, it’s easy to see a little bit of oneself within each, prompting introspection as to the very issues facing Hunter and Madison about their father. Jeremy Strong and Jake Sisto add some outright humorous enjoyment to the mix as the library-destroying yuppie Jake and his local cohort, Sheriff Rowlings, respectively.
Veteran commercial director Jake Schreier helms his first feature with ROBOT & FRANK in a collaborative partnership with his longtime friend and production partner, writer Chris Ford. A full-length feature based on Ford’s NYU thesis film from ten years ago, Schreier sheds some light on the progression of the story, describing the concept as “fascinating.” “[Ford] had been reading a bunch of stories about in Japan their baby boom generation is reaching old age sooner than ours is and so they have this whole elderly population that they have to figure out how to take care of . They’re actually building these robots with an eye towards doing that [providing elder care].”
A wonderful character study, ROBOT & FRANK sheds light on the age old issues of man versus machine, literacy, the importance of the printed word, resistence to change, analog to digital, printed word to digital holograms, elder care, Alzheimer’s and family. Different sides of the arguments are strewn throughout the film in a very balanced and thoughtful presentation. Schreier and Ford provide a delicately balanced and subtle exploration of both sides of the coin, with the various parts of the movie lining up on one side or the other of these concerns. With the crux of the story revolving around Frank’s memory and Robot’s memory “and how confusing it is for Frank that the robot doesn’t seem to care about his memory because for Frank it’s the most important thing in the world to him”, these issues are “baked in.” And let’s not forget some very sweet surprises that are sprinkled along the way.
A beautiful aspect of ROBOT & FRANK is Matthew Lloyd’s cinematography, with a film set “in the near future”, it was important to Schreier to keep the feature relatable as this world is “around the corner.” With that in mind, Schreier and Lloyd worked together to insure that the film has visual texture. Although shooting digitally, Lloyd used old 1940's camera lenses that, according to Schreier, are “just a little messed up. They have little inconsistencies that give it texture and sort of a softness that was very analog.”
With naturally free-flowing comedy that just stems from seeing Frank Langella and a robot together engaging in everyday life...and a few extracurricular activities...as opposed to dialogue, the comedic element is very visual, something incorporated into Schreier’s approach to directing and Lloyd’s lensing. As explained by Schreier, “It’s the imagery of this old man and his robot so we tried to stick to wider compositions and longer takes. You just kind of take this in, in this kind of odd way where it almost feels normal but then you think about what you’re watching and it’s very odd. So we wanted to keep our distance that way.”
A fast 20 day shoot in Cold Spring, New York, the primary house was that of Frank and his robot. A lovely cottage type affair with an aged charm, one of the most charming features of the house, severely inclined rooftop eaves, presented their own challenges. With some scenes shot in an upstairs bedroom, the eaved ceilings provide a lovely visual touch, but were a nightmare for Schreier and company. Although using primarily one camera for the entire shoot, some scenes, such as this bedroom scene, required two cameras, prompting a humorous anecdote from Schreier on recall. “ Lance Accord is a producer on the film and was also nice enough to shoot B camera for days. So we have these 2 cameras cramped into that little bedroom and there’s just nowhere to go. I think at one point when James [Marsden] is exiting, he had to just walk up to the door and pretend to be out of the room just to get out of shot.” And of course, those cramped quarters only added to the already oppressive summer heat. “It was 100 degree heat. . . Frank [Langella] likes it when it’s cool and it was not cool in that house for much of [the filming]. He was always very happy when it rained and it would get to a manageable temperature.”
And I cannot stress enough to stay through the credits as Schreier has some special footage that’s inserted throughout.
Taking a very human look at the things both us as individuals, and Hollywood, like to avoid, ROBOT & FRANK helps steer our moral compasses with a film that is caring, compassionate, intelligent and funny. Rooted in genuine charm and the brilliant performance by Frank Langella, ROBOT & FRANK steals your heart.
Frank - Frank Langella
Jennifer - Susan Sarandon
Hunter - James Marsden
Madison - Liv Tyler
Robot - voiced by Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Jake Schreier. Written by Christopher D. Ford.