Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Cinema File #104: "Robot And Frank" Review

[Editor's Note: A previous version of this review noted Michael Emerson as the voice of the Robot. This has been corrected to Peter Sarsgaard. Not sure how that happened, I wrote this around the same time as I wrote my review for The Dark Knight Returns, and must have mixed up reviews some how.]

If movies have taught me anything else (and they haven't), it's that one day, man's reliance on artificially intelligent robots will spell our doom as the machines rise up to exterminate humanity. Of course, I suppose we would have to actually invent a truly artificially intelligent robot first, but in the meantime, we still have the luxury of finding the occasional would-be killing machine just absolutely adorable. Such is the case with the subject of today's review, the independent comedy Robot and Frank.

Set in the very near future before the robot uprising, Robot and Frank follows the titular Frank, played by Frank Langella, who is suffering from Alzheimer's and has been given a mechanical helper bot to keep him healthy, entertained, and engaged with the world when his adult kids can't take care of him anymore. Apart from a positive recommendation from the one friend I knew who saw it, I didn't really have any expectations for this movie, but I've always loved Langella, as well as Peter Sarsgaard who provides the voice of the robot, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. The interplay between the two characters is very funny and often heartwarming as their relationship grows from caustic to almost brotherly, and by the end as they face the prospect of their friendship ending, I have to admit I teared up a bit, which is pretty rare for me.

Langella portrays his character's illness with a subtlety I appreciated in a world where so many actors would have gone for the schmaltzy, over the top Oscar moment, and I have to imagine it was difficult to bring so much emotion to a role where so much of the performance hinges on acting opposite a faceless object whose dialogue is unnaturally fed to him off screen. The robot is able to be charming without being anthropomorphized; you feel for him despite the constant repetition of his inherent inhumanity and the film doesn't ever cop out by trying to make it more than what it is. The futuristic elements are downplayed enough that they fade into the background and allow the simpler character moments to take center stage, and its a testament to how good the movie is that you instantly buy the premise and never question the fact that this robot is real, not just an actor in a suit, and that Frank's growing fondness for his artificial companion is genuine and earned.

I normally set aside at least one section of each review specifically for the flaws of the movie, but there really isn't anything I can point to as significant to qualify. Robot and Frank is a simple story executed very well with a great cast supporting two equally great central performances, and its hard for me to imagine just who it would not appeal to. Its funny without being outrageous or overly silly, its heartfelt without being corny or overly sentimental, and it does pretty much everything right. If you can't get on board within the first twenty minutes, I'd seriously wonder what would be enough to entertain you. Its out on video now and I definitely recommend giving it a shot if you come across it.

I know, these reviews are usually a little longer than this. I'm kinda weirded out by it myself, but that's all I got. See you tomorrow.
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