Friday, September 7, 2012

Robot & Frank: Unconventional buddy saga

Robot & Frank (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather needlessly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.7.12

Science fiction isn’t solely devoted to opulent spaceship battles and grim post-apocalyptic survival sagas, despite Hollywood’s best efforts to suggest as much.

At first, Frank (Frank Langella) can't stand having to share his home
with a mechanical "nurse" that monitors what times he gets up each
morning, in addition to dozens of other intrusive edicts. But Frank's
new companion has other, far more intriguing talents ... and
friendships have been built on much less.
Some of our best cinema sci-fi has been much quieter and more deeply moving: gentle parables that employ only modest futuristic touches in order to confront universal truths — often uncomfortable ones — about the human condition.

These days, as aging baby boomers contemplate the frightening implications of mental and/or physical deterioration, we’re seeing a corresponding focus on gerontology issues. Science fiction has responded in kind.

Robot & Frank is a whimsical, charming and poignant character study: a film school short expanded into a full-length feature that enchanted this year’s Sundance Film Festival audience and went home with the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. The tone of Christopher D. Ford’s original script — his first big-screen effort — feels very much like that of a Ray Bradbury story: thoughtful, occasionally poetic and willing to tackle unsettling topics.

But this slice of elder life is disarmingly cloaked in the trappings of a mild-mannered comedy, and the story’s more serious elements sneak up on us. Director Jake Schreier, also making an impressive feature film debut, paces the narrative quite skillfully; he also draws persuasive performances from his cast members, most notably star Frank Langella.

The result, at times, feels like an intimate stage play. The action is confined mostly to two locations, with a resulting, subtle sense of claustrophobia that echoes our main character’s confusion over the way memory loss is shrinking his world.

The setting is “the near future” in the upstate New York community of Cold Spring. Frank (Langella) lives alone in an increasingly cluttered home that is nestled in the woods, a comfortable walk from town. Frank’s grown children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), have grown worried about his apparent inability to care for himself; his fading memory also plays tricks on him, such as an ongoing desire to dine at a long-absent local restaurant.

He’s also a kleptomaniac, occasionally pocketing trinkets from a gift shop and then squirreling them away in his home wall safe.

Frank’s one regular joy comes from the walking trips he takes to the Cold Spring Library, where he exchanges oft-read books while chatting with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). She is the facility’s sole remaining human employee — filing duties and record-keeping having been embraced by computers and ambulatory machines — and Frank is pretty much the building’s only visitor.

In this gadget-laden world, a quite logical extension of where e-readers could take us, books have become a forgotten window into great minds and faraway places ... and libraries apparently wobble on the verge of extinction. This subtext is profoundly depressing and strikingly Bradbury-esque, although apparently our books won’t be lost to censorious burning; they’ll simply be digitized and then discarded.

I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

Hunter makes time-consuming weekly drives to check on his father, more out of a feeling of responsibility than any genuine desire to spend time together; we sense efforts to surmount mild estrangement, the cause for which eventually becomes clear. Hunter, increasingly concerned by what he finds each week, threatens placement in a senior care facility; Frank angrily resists.

So Hunter compromises by gifting his father with a walking, talking humanoid robot that has been programmed to improve the old man’s physical and mental health. Stung by this presumptuousness, Frank bitterly resents the hovering presence of this mechanical nanny, which now micro-manages his every move, from strict, healthier diets to enforced regular waking and sleeping hours.

This arrangement seems doomed to failure, until Frank discovers that his new companion’s programming is somewhat light on ethics. Although the robot understands concepts such as theft, it has no inherent objections to such behavior. And if Frank becomes newly invigorated by this discovery, well, so much the better.

You see, Frank is a “retired” cat burglar, long chafing at his inability to continue the quite exciting, high-stakes career that he remembers so vividly. The robot has physical skills that Frank’s old fingers now fumble, not to mention additional abilities — such as rapidly trying all possible values of a combination lock — that would require prohibitive amounts of time for a human being.

And thus a new — and quite unlikely — criminal team is born.

Sadly, it’s not that simple. Although a meticulous planner by nature, Frank anticipates scenarios that are decades out of date; the world has moved on, and he hasn’t. He’s also still an old man who is compromised further by an unwillingness to acknowledge his limitations.

Indeed, he doesn’t even perceive some of those limitations.

Langella, for years an under-appreciated actor only now receiving proper recognition for a long and remarkably varied career that recently brought him an Academy Award nomination for 2008’s Frost/Nixon, delivers a precise, delicately nuanced performance. His expressive features convey a wealth of emotions, from stubborn petulance to sorrow, embarrassment and the genuine fear that he may have become as obsolete as the books in the town library.

Watch for the flicker of interest — so marvelously subtle, at first — as Frank learns of his new companion’s moral shortcomings.

At the same time, we can’t necessarily take Frank’s surface behavior at face value. He built a career on deceit and subterfuge, and he’s not above resorting to guile in the service of his desires, even if it means conning his own children. Eventually, we come to recognize the impish spark dancing in Langella’s eyes, which means that Frank once again is up to no good.

Tyler breezes into this story when the globe-trotting Madison — a political activist with rather strong views on the subject of robot helpers — decides to visit and care for Frank herself. It’s a noble gesture, but Madison can’t begin to cope with the situation; Tyler deftly conveys her character’s warring, guilt-laden emotions.

We’ve all experienced this internal conflict: “I feel like I should do this for you, but I’d really rather you insisted that I not bother, so that I can be let off the hook without feeling guilty.”

Marsden has a somewhat tougher role, because Hunter lacks the comfortable relationship that his sister shares with their father. Hunter is more apt to act according to his own definition of a “best” solution, rather than working with Frank toward a mutually agreeable goal. And yet, even as a successful adult with a family of his own, Hunter stills recalls being the little boy who worshiped his dad.

Sarandon, as always, is an effervescent revelation. Jennifer is a patient woman with an obvious fondness for Frank, and of course we wonder if anything will come of that.

The robot is no special effect; it’s a “suit” fabricated by makeup and sfx designer Tony Gardner and his company, Alterian Inc., and is inhabited by petite dancer Rachael Ma. The robot’s lines and form obscure the standard human silhouette, and of course Ma’s “performance” goes a long way toward humanizing this white, boxy being.

Peter Sarsgaard supplies the robot’s voice, and longtime movie buffs will blink more than once, because the calm, carefully modulated tones strongly echo HAL, from 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fortunately, Sarsgaard inhabits a far more benevolent artificial construct ... and one whose fate soon concerns us quite deeply.

Because that, too, is a heavy topic in Schreier’s film. The agony of encroaching senility is uppermost — the potential loss of a once-vibrant man, cast aside much like Jennifer’s cherished books — but Ford’s screenplay also contemplates the degree to which a robotic being can blossom from intrusive pest to valued friend.

People, particularly lonely people, have long valued their strong bonds with pet cats and dogs. In our probable brave new world, is it so difficult to imagine the same thing happening with mechanical companions? Briefs clips of actual robots — some clearly designed to assist the elderly — accompany this film’s closing credits, and they lend weight to all such questions.

And what, then, are the obvious social and psychological implications? Our increasingly intolerant society includes people who already can’t wrap their nasty, judgmental brains around same-sex relationships; how will they cope with human/machine interactions?

Steven Spielberg capably covered this territory with 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, his contemplative and often quite disturbing adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Schreier and Ford’s new film makes an excellent, if less flashy, companion piece: a “what if” tale that encourages us to acknowledge some painful, real-world truths.

And that’s the mark of a truly successful science-fiction story.

No comments:

Post a Comment