26 August, 2012

Review: "Robot & Frank" (****)

Frank Langella, a robot and Liv Tyler star in "Robot & Frank"

Despite the fact that Frank Langella has been acting for nearly half a century, I only first noticed him in 2005's "Good Night and Good Luck." In 2007, Langella almost made my personal ballot for his performance in "Starting Out in the Evening." That performance was better than the film, and the same could probably be said for his Oscar nominated work in 2008's "Frost/Nixon." He mostly pops up in supporting roles, but occasionally a tailor-made lead role presents itself. "Robot & Frank" is a prime example, and Langella dominates.

Jake Schreier's "Robot & Frank" was the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Awarded to a film that focuses on science or technology, previous winners include "Primer" and "Another Earth," two of my favorites. It's hard to say, but the film might best sit under the science fiction umbrella. Family drama, comedy and suspense all manage to weave their way through in equal measure. Ultimately, the film has a lot to say about the burden of aging. Does the ability to erase a computer's memory make you think twice about time's ability to erase yours? It will by the time the powerless robot's head falls onto Frank's shoulder.

The movie's 'very near future' setting depicts much more of a low-fi future than we are used to seeing at the cinema. Televisions are riddled with static, phone calls still cut out, robots look as if they were crafted from the remains of old Macintosh Classics. The peaceful Cold Spring, New York setting makes this clunky vision of the future less jarring. Sharp edits keep the story moving at a brisk step, slowing down only at the most appropriate times. Some beautifully soft cinematography is on display towards the end of the film, when the most poignant moments are delivered to bring the audience much more of an emotional return than they expected.

Even with the likes of Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong and Peter Saarsgard (providing Robot's voice); Langella is a commanding lead. If I had an Oscar ballot, this performance would be a shoo-in. Screenwriter Christopher D. Ford also deserves some credit. He allows both leads (Frank and Robot) to be multi-dimensional without breaking from the film's own reality.

Working on a number of levels, "Robot & Frank" is just the kind of rich but simple surprise I like.

4 out of 5 stars.

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