Review: Langella gives ‘Robert and Frank’ a human touch
September 18, 2012
In “Robot and Frank,” Frank Langella plays a jewel thief, also named Frank. Though he is retired from the heist racket, it is established in the first scene that thievery is still very much on his mind. So it’s not surprising that when Frank shows signs of dementia, we sometimes get the impression that his memory loss is a bit of a con, too.
But no, the forgetfulness is legit. Frank truly is unable to grasp the names of his children, the fact that his son, Hunter (James Marsden) hasn’t been a student at Princeton for 15 years, and other, even more momentous fragments of his life. If Frank seems to be faking it, it might be because Langella himself isn’t yet able to relate to the character of a doddering, useless old man ready for the geriatric center.
And why should he? Langella was just getting warmed up as an actor in his late 60s, when he earned a Tony Award for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in the play “Frost/Nixon,” then starred onscreen in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” earned an Oscar nomination for the film adaptation of “Frost/Nixon” and earned positive reviews for his starring role in the indie film “Starting Out in the Evening.” Now 74, Langella seems capable of turning in commanding performances at will, and the idea of not being able to play dementia perfectly convincingly makes some sense.
By all other measures, Langella is in top form in “Robot and Frank,” adding all the necessary touches of humanity in a story that requires such grounding. Set in the near future, the film centers around the relationship between a man and a robot. With Frank single, starting to lose it and his kids far away, Hunter gets him a robot (Peter Sarsgaard in a very effective voice-only performance). The robot is programmed to act as caretaker, but it is flexible in its processes, and Frank enlists it as a literal partner in crime.
We’re set up to think that this is a heist film, and indeed there is a heist; Frank and Robot lift some jewels from an obnoxious yuppie who really has it coming. But “Robot and Frank,” adapted by director Jake Schreier from Christopher Ford’s screenplay, veers off in other directions, almost all of them either touching, funny or thought-provoking. It’s a small film – light-handed, with a few angles that are best left unexamined. And at an hour and 20 minutes, it feels too short. But it never overreaches (OK, it overreaches once, in the twisty relationship between Frank and Jennifer, the hot librarian played by Susan Sarandon) and in its quirky, effortless way engages us to think about memory, the future and the continuing rise of Langella.