Monday, August 27, 2012
Robot & Frank
Most of my favorite movies this year have been huge loud explosive adventures with people dying almost every scene. "Batman 3", "Cabin in the Woods", "The Raid", these are violent, violent movies that really are more spectacle and action over characters and introspection. Quit soul searching movies don't really start up until roughly around now, as the summer turns into fall, bringing us once again into the wonder of Oscar Bait season. However, "Robot and Frank" is not really Oscar Bait, I don't think anybody would list it on any Oscar Predictions listings, which is really a shame because character dramas really don't get any better than "Robot and Frank". This is an actor's movie, where the entire movie rests on the likability and skills of the actors, so its really lucky they got Skeletor to play Frank.
Frank Langella is one of the greatest actors alive today, and its really only in the last decade or so that he's begun to really show off his just perfect mastery of his craft. He is virtually playing himself here, he even shares the first name with his character. It really wasn't until 2008, with "Frost/Nixon" that Langella got a really deep dramatic role, when he spent his first few acting decades playing Dracula, Zoro, Skeletor, and the idiot who sets himself on fire in "The Ninth Gate". And right after "Frost/Nixon", Langella went straight back to his villain roots as in the astonishingly awful movie, "The Box". "Robot and Frank" really shows how brilliant this guy is, since the two humans he spends the most time with are James Marsdan and Liv Tyler, actors who cannot even begin to compare to this guy. If you're looking for a movie where a great actor just rules the screen without being ridiculous or hammy, this is it, and Frank Langella is that actor.
But here's the best part about "Robot and Frank": despite obstinately being an old people movie about life's end and coming to grips with oncoming dementia, learning to let your kids help you, and how stupid young people are, its also SciFi! And not bad SciFi either. There's a robot in that screenshot for a reason. Its a buddy movie between an old man and his robot live-in health aid. And just in case the drama or the touching affection aren't quite your thing yet, Frank and the Robot are cat burglars.
"Robot and Frank" is set in the very near future, so the world more or less looks exactly the same. However, there are a few key things that have changed. Robots are advanced and sophisticated enough to be full-time nursing aids to the elderly and perform any number of basic tasks, like librarian work. The Nook and Kindle revolution has been successful enough that the printed page has been all but abandoned except for the fascination of awful postmodern rich hipsters. Frank Langella is quite literally lost in the future world, suffering from the first-stages of Alzheimer's and often finding himself out of touch with the reality around him as his memory fades. For example, Frank constantly decides that he's going to eat lunch as his favorite restaurant, Harry's, which unfortunately closed years ago and is now a soap store. Frank's response to shoplift little bits of soap almost every day. He also loves to visit the library in town to rent out books and flirt with the librarian, played by Susan Sarandan.
But as will always happen in a story, Frank's simple existence is shook-up when his son, James Marsden gives him a robot butler to watch out for him. Marsden has his own family now and cannot keep up the energy to spend his weekends driving up to visit his grouchy father. Also the hipsters have taken over the local library, taking away all the books and replacing them with some kind of loud dance clue and a virtual reality service. The Robot really cramps Frank's style at first, forcing him to keep to a schedule, eat vegan, and start a garden. "Fuck this", Frank responds, with the honest freedom to be as crude and honest as possible. I can't wait to get old, that way I can just be as grumpy as I want. You can even be racist and sexist and homophobic and nobody is allowed to judge you, its awesome. Old people get all the fun... except for the old part. Anyway, Frank is even more glorious when dealing with the Yuppie Leader, this little prick that's essentially Gideon from "Scott Pilgrim", only somehow more condescending. "Frank, you're so square you're almost avant-garde". "What did this little shit just call me?"
The central relationship is of course between Frank and the Robot. The Robot is constantly chipper and pleasant, in his pre-programed system of making emotional connections with his owner. Of course, he's also a Robot, so you know every single one of his lines and responses are pre-programmed, but somehow he wiggles himself into Frank's heart. For one, the Robot is so endlessly pleasant and played brilliantly by Peter Saarsgard, who manages to voice act the nicest guy you could possibly imagine. He's also manipulative too, claiming a fear of having his memory erased when really he cares about no such thing. In an oddly philosophical moment, the Robot admits that he doesn't care about his sense of self because he knows that he is not alive, and his existence is merely a tool for humans. Which freaks Frank out something deep because the memory problem mirrors his own deepening Alzheimer's. But what really gets Frank to love the Robot is a mistake in the Robot's programming, the Robot will gleefully join in absolutely illegal criminal activities with only an interest in how this hobby helps his owner's brain functions.
Who is the first guy they target for cat burglary? The Yuppie jerk, of course. Because when somebody is just this unbelievably dickish and obnoxious, you can easily steal everything he has. Ramona's Evil Ex-Boyfriends don't deserve their jewels, lovable elderly thieves should take them. Unfortunately, Gideon - I never caught this guy's name so I'll just call him Gideon - has some deep ties with the local police, and he immediately suspects Frank. The awesome part of this movie, even as it turns into a cat and mouse game between the sheriff and Frank, is that the Sheriff likes Frank better. He giggles with fanboy glee when him and Frank reminisce about the good old days of crime.
"Robot and Frank" feels a lot like "Gran Torino", the Clint Eastwood movie. They're both films with the main attraction being an old man utterly disgusted by the world around them. While Clint Eastwood was put off by the urban decay of his old neighborhood and wasn't taking shit from gang bangers, Frank here is disgusted by the yuppies. And in both cases, they have rather annoying kids and families who don't really understand them. The difference though is that while "Gran Torino" made Clint Eastwood the saintly representative of American morality and do-it-yourself-badassary, Frank here is actually a really sick man. And you don't realize just how sick he is until one of the last twists. Also, "Gran Torino" could have used a Robot sidekick, I'm sure.
There are also really heartwarming and funny moments in "Robot and Frank". Everybody in the theater had to say "D'AWWWW" when Frank finally called Robot "my friend". There's also some really sad moments when Frank forgets who the Robot is and thinks he's his son, and tries to figure out just what their relationship was. My favorite scene though was when the Robot met a library bot, and Frank tried to get them to talk. Which is really awkward because they're only programmed to interact with humans. "I have nothing to say to that model." Ouch. "Hi, how are you doing?" "All of my functions are working." (Silence) Robots are adorable, thus why "WALL-E" is the greatest movie ever made.
To conclude, "Robot and Frank" is right now my favorite drama movie of the entire year. I wish it would win an Oscar, but that's doubtful. It really helps if you're like me and you pretty much act like an old man all the time already, already bitterly disgusted with everything that's popular. Like, do I really need to listen to fucking dubstep? Why doesn't anybody listen to anything nice, like Benny Goodman? Goddamn brats. Back in my day, we had to walk fifteen miles to get to the nearest radio! In the snow! Uphill! Both fucking ways! And we had to fight through Nazi trenches on the way back. You have no idea how good you youngsters have it. So go see "Robot and Frank".