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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Robot and Frank (2012)

There have been a surprising number of films looking at the problems of aging and incipient Alzheimer's in particular, but none that you could really classify as a 'feel-good' movie. Let's face it, there is nothing particularly noble or uplifting about the deterioration or death that comes for all of us in the end. I first considered seeing the above film when it was featured in last autumn's London Film Festival, since the premise suggested that it might be the one movie that treated the aging process with a light and comedic hand -- the reverse of "Amour" on current release. However, I was misled; while it is a charming and at times amusing film, the end result is just as sad and moving.

Set in the very near future, Frank Langella plays the eponymous Frank, an aging ex-cat burglar, living alone and fretted about by his two adult children, James Marsden (the goofy crown prince from "Enchanted") and the flighty Liv Tyler (still something of a one-note actress). To save his having to make a five-hour round-trip every weekend to reluctantly look after his dear old Dad (and we later discover that he can barely stand him on many levels), the successful Marsden buys him a health-care robot to look after his needs -- to tidy up the squalor in which he lives, to provide healthy meals, and to try to keep his mind active and alert. These early scenes are among the film's best, as the grouchy Frank resents Robot's (he never does give it a name) bossiness and do-good programming. However he gradually realises that the machine possesses the agility at lock-picking that he is beginning to lose and trains the initially reluctant Robot to become his accomplice in a series of increasingly major thefts; the machine has only been programmed to look after Frank and has not been given any moral sense of right and wrong. This gives Frank a new enthusiasm for life and he begins to look at Robot as his best friend, despite the machine's continually reminding his ward that he is not a human being. I should mention here that Robot is voiced by Peter Saarsgaard who gives it a wonderfully passive-aggressive tone.

Langella has been a favourite of mine for many years, since I first noticed him when he was still young and beautiful in 1970's "Diary of a Mad Housewife", where his louche seducer took blithe advantage of hard-done hausfrau Carrie Snodgrass. He was then the sexiest Dracula ever in the 1979 film, a replay of his earlier smash-hit appearance on Broadway as the Count. However, over the years his film appearances have become both smaller and less frequent, as he pursued his first love of stage. "Frost/Nixon" and "Good Night and Good Luck" put him back in the cinema spotlight and he really shines again in this rare leading role. He manages to be both the abrasive old codger as well as the unrepentent crook for whom we root, especially when one of the local yuppies who has closed down the local library, replacing it with new appliances which make the 'written-word' obsolete, is the object of Frank's most daring jewels heist and ultimately his would-be nemesis, attempting to bring the full weight of the law down on poor old Frank's head.

There is also a wonderfully warm role for Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, with whom Frank vigorously flirts, without realising that she is a bigger part of his past life than his deteriorating mind can recall. In the end Frank is forced to chose between his freedom and his BFF Robot. He finds himself in one of the much-dreaded care homes that he has resisted and we are shown evidence of his continual mental decline. In many ways this is as depressing an ending as any, although in its last minutes the skillfully-written film manages to suggest that Frank perhaps does have more of his wits about him than the casual observer might realise.

Despite the relatively downbeat and moving ending, the film -- a first feature from director Jake Schreier -- is both sharp and entertaining, and in so many ways more enjoyable than geriatric 'romps' like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" or "Quartet", largely thanks to Langella's thoughtful and winning performance.
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