First time feature director Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank opened the Sarasota Film Festival tonight. Lacking only klieg lights, red carpets running from the curb straight into the theater, or a flotilla of limousines, the packed house at the elegant Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, thoroughly enjoyed the film which, prior to tonight, had garnered awards at the most recent Sundance Film Festival.
The film has successfully woven together three separate or disparate plot lines. On one side we have the tale of a friendship that grows after a rocky start. On the other hand we have a jewel heist. And smack dab in the middle there’s story of an elderly man, living alone in a house in upstate New York, and his memory is failing. Simply, it is a kind of dementia that is steadily encroaching and edging its way into this man’s life. Only he’s not recognizing that it is happening to him.
The film is set in the near future without specifying how far into the future that might be. Some of the cell phones and other forms of communication equipment that we see look a little advanced. But people wear recognizable clothing, and live in familiar looking homes.
Frank Langella stars as the titular Frank. He is about 72 years old. His two children are adults, and his wife has long since vanished into the wind. You see, Frank was a ‘second-story man‘. What you might call a jewel thief. He’s done two stretches in prison – once for a robbery, and the other on what Frank called – a lightweight charge of tax fraud.
He looks like he’s okay. I mean he walks and talks, he shops and sometimes shop-lifts, and he has an interest in the local librarian (Jennifer) played in a wonderfully subdued manner by Susan Sarandon. His diet is nothing special. For example, he enjoys the kid friendly but definitely not nutritious choco-pops cereal in the morning. But he forgets things like taking out the trash, or having fresh milk instead of spoiled milk for his cereal. He thinks he’s had dinner recently at a local restaurant called Harry’s – only it has been closed for years.
When his grown son Hunter comes to visit him weekly (a lengthy 10 hour round trip) Frank asks him how he’s doing at Princeton. “Dad – I went to Princeton long ago. It’s been 15 years since I got out of school.”
So Hunter (played by James Marsden) is very concerned. He’s been noticing these kind of lapses, far too often. They’ve had the talks – the one that all families eventually have to deal with. Hunter believes that his Dad is approaching the point when he’d no longer be able to care for himself. But Frank has repeatedly denied that he’s unable to care for himself, and has absolutely refused to enter any kind of health care or assisted living facility.
So Hunter decides that if he can’t bring Frank to health care, maybe he can bring the health care right into Frank’s home. That would be the titular Robot. Hunter tells Frank that the robot is something like a butler. He will keep the house clean, cook meals and make sure you have a healthy diet. You won’t be the least bit surprised that Frank is not only skeptical, but he’s also quite resistant. So much so, that Frank’s daughter Madison (played by Liv Tyler) will also be concerned. In fact she flies home all the way from Turkmenistan because Frank told her about not wanting to be cared for by a robot especially because he doesn’t need to be cared for..
It doesn’t start well. In rom/coms a boy meets a girl and they fall in love. Here it is – man meets appliance and detests this intruder who has come into his home. The robot is faceless but has mobility – it even walks upright like a human. It possesses the skills to learn nearly anything, and its been programmed as a health care aid (not a butler as Frank thought initially) with Frank’s health and welfare being its prime concern.
The robot suggests, and Frank resists. Most of the time, every one of the audience, all 1736 strong, laughed out loud as Frank and the Robot went at it. In fact, the script by Christopher Ford produced far more laughter than I expected. It was delightful. Trust me – there were many, many funny lines that will stick with you.
Little by little, Frank and the Robot stop the fighting and arguing. The house is clean, Frank begins to enjoy the vegetarian meals provided by the robot. The feuding evolves into a friendship.
Most of this is achieved by Frank Langella’s superb skills. Long known for his acting skills, stage and trade craft, and for having the ability to be believable in nearly every kind of role – this time Frank doesn’t trot out with an actor’s trick bag. His performance was both graceful, winning, and most of all, seemed so very natural. Frank would later say (in the post film discussion) that most of this performance came from his own aging. He said that the 30-somethings who wrote and directed couldn’t possibly know or understand what facing one’s own mortality was like.
Frank Langella is not only the central member of the cast – but you’ll find that you can’t take your eyes off him. His kids love and care for him, but he frustrates them at every turn. But Frank and the Robot are not the ‘Sunshine Boys‘. This film is far more than a series of old man jokes. In fact there’s a subtext that goes beyond aging, and you’ll love the way Ford’s script and Schreier’s direction handled it.
We are spared nearly all of the sights and sounds of Frank’s dementia as it might have impaired his motor skills, and nervous system. Instead we see Frank’s forgetfulness. However, when he’s doing well, his memory has all the acuity that he had in his youth. Which leads him to planning another heist. Of course the robot has plenty to say about this.
But I’m not going there (the heist) in this review. I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own. Suffice to say, that this film, with the very unsexy title of Robot & Frank, was the easily the most entertaining and enjoyable film that I’ve seen this year. As for the back-woodsy setting it worked just fine. As a former city dweller I always looked forward to time spent among the trees. Let’s also make note that inside that robot gear was a live woman (Rachel Ma) and the robot’s spoken lines were delivered beautifully by Peter Sarsgaard who sounded very much like a younger Kevin Spacey.
This was the near perfect melding of age and wisdom (Frank Langella) combined with youthful exuberance in the form of the sublime direction and a marvelous script (by Jake Schreier and Christopher Ford). As I said up top, Robot and Frank walked off with an award at Sundance. I think we can expect more of the same here in Sarasota. The rating – as I said, this film is the best I’ve seen this year. Four point seven five out of five. A definite must see.
After the Screening: SFF Director Tom Hall, Frank Langella, Film Director Jake Schreier, and Film Producer Sam Bisbee sat onstage and discussed the film and took questions from the audience. SFF’s Tom Hall led with a question for Frank.
Tom Hall: Frank, can you tell us how you came to this film project?
Frank Langella: My agent sent me the script. If I like a script, then I like to meet with the Director and the Writer to see what they’re like, and to see if we have a good fit and will be able to work together.
We met at Henry’s, a restaurant at 105th and Broadway on the Upper West Side. I’ve been going there for years. When these guys arrived I noted their youth – their mothers brought them to the restaurant. They were so young! [Langella leans over and points at Jake Schreier with his left hand while simultaneously gripping the lapel of his coat with his right hand. This jacket is older than he is.
Of course that brought down the house. As did Frank’s comment that he wondered why the title of the film wasn’t Frank and Robot. Or how glad he was that because of scheduling conflicts that Christopher Walken had turned down the part. Priceless, priceless, and … priceless.