Friday August 31, 2012

"Robot & Frank" may be the oddest credit in Frank Langella’s almost 60 years on stage and screen.

It is, as its title declares, about a robot. And Frank.

This sentimental comedy traffics in old age, forgetfulness, family and a robot that "feels." And it works better than it has any right to, largely through Langella’s way with a curmudgeon, his force of personality.

The Frank this Frank plays is an aged retiree in upstate New York, a man living out his golden years "in the near future," when the cars have grown tinier, the phones even thinner and the local library has become an empty "museum" for books.

Frank is a cranky loner who forgets that his favorite diner closed years before, that he’s been divorced for 30 years, what his kids’ names are, on occasion.

But he hasn’t forgotten how to pick a lock. He hasn’t forgotten that he did time for being "a second-story man," a jewel thief. So he makes it a habit of shoplifting something every trek he makes into town.

His son (James Marsden) is tired of worrying about that, and about the clutter Frank lives in and the weekly trips he has to make to check on Dad. So he rents the guy a robot "helper." Frank isn’t convinced.

"That thing is going to murder me in my sleep!" Frank resists the healthier diet the robot prepares, the exercise the robot wants him to do.


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Until, that is, the robot makes him see it from his point of view.

"If you die eating cheese burgers, what happens to me?" the VGC 60L asks in Peter Sarsgaard’s soothing voice. He’s sort of a fussy HAL 9000 from "2001" with just a hint of needy C3PO about him. The robot will be deemed a failure, shipped back to the factory and have its memory scrubbed. Frank’s humanity gets the better of him and he relents.

Christopher Ford’s script makes few demands for special effects and not many more demands of the players. Frank and the robot plan jobs and carry them out, and try to keep a low profile as they do. Frank re-connects with his globe-trotting daughter (Liv Tyler), who comes home to fuss over him at the worst possible time. He flirts with the soon-to-be-redundant librarian (Susan Sarandon) and crosses swords with a rude yuppie hipster (Jeremy Strong).

More could have been done with the capers, and with the robot-human "relationship." But Langella, interacting with that short, helmeted thing, never lets on that this is anything but real, never lets us see that forgetful Frank sees anything less than a golden opportunity for golden age to score in this new partnership.

It’s more humorous than funny, more charming than truly entertaining. But "Robot & Frank" can still be savored for its human assets, especially the 74-year-old who finally gets to play a character who shares his first name.

"Robot & Frank" is rated PG-13 for some language.