Robot and Frank breaks into your heart

A week and a day of cinema on offer at Filmfest München

What a way for this reviewer to begin the first day of Filmfest München. 'Robot and Frank' takes place in what is referred to as the 'near future', and to be honest, some of the scenarios do not seem too far-fetched. Well, the main part of the story might be a little ways off. Frank Langella plays Frank, and is a retired cat burglar. As an aside, it always makes me chuckle when an actor plays a character who shares the same first name. It reminds me of Tony Danza, who seemed to always land parts with the name Tony.

Yet Frank Langella is too superb an actor for me to suggest he could not remember any other name than his. If you remember him playing Richard Nixon in the 2008 drama 'Frost/Nixon', there is no way you can question his abilities. But this is a buddy comedy, and the twist is that his counterpart is a robot. Although Peter Sarsgaard provides the voice for the robot, for the viewer this character is anything but human. This is where the crux of the movie comes in.

See, if you make an emotional connection with the robot, then this movie works for you. If you watch Frank reject the robot butler that his son brings him as a gift and you understand the old man's reticence to accept this new technology, then you will be more willing to go with Frank on his journey.

This 'near future' includes things such as voice activated video calls, so periodically Frank hears a beep from somewhere in the room that tells him he has a call. It could be his son Hunter, played by James Marsden, but it could also be his daughter Madison, who Liv Tyler plays. She is the screechy do gooder of the two and she benefits the most from the advanced technology, while constantly preaching against it. If I were to find fault in the script, it would be the relative superficiality of Madison's character.

Frank does not want the robot butler. Not only does he try to deactivate it, but he enlists his daughter to help him convince Hunter to come and take the robot butler away for good. Because she is on the other side of the planet volunteering in a third world country, she does her pleading by videoconference. By the time she appears at Frank's house purportedly to help him get rid of the robot, Frank has already grown attached to this contraption that he had recently been petitioning to be rid of.

But why the change of heart? What happened with Frank and the robot? It is quite simple actually. Frank realises that the robot has no conscience. The robot's main task is to keep Frank active and alert. Once the old thief becomes aware that the robot can crack a safe in a fraction of the time he can do it manually, the wildest of possibilities open up before him. Frank has something to keep him busy.

There is one other thing that keeps Frank busy, and in true Hollywood fashion it is a love interest. The librarian Jennifer, who Susan Sarandon plays well, is visited on a regular basis by Frank. It turns out he is one of the few patrons left who still uses the town's library.

And as if on cue, the bad guy of the film arrives. He is the relatively young yuppie Jake, played by Jeremy Strong, who wants to digitally catalogue all of the books and have them shipped as far away as possible. He uses phrases like, "Re-imagine the modern library experience." This is a vapid concept, except that it signifies that the library where Jennifer works is about to be rid of its most treasured volumes. The first job Frank and his robot go on is to save one of the rarest books of the library's collection, so he can then present it to Jennifer.

That caper only leads to an even bigger job, which of course raises the stakes. The latter third of the film deals with the realisation that Frank can get rid of the most damning evidence against him by simply rebooting the robot's memory. The problem is that he has come to really like the little guy.

On the surface, it seems like this is a movie about artificial intelligence. However, upon further reflection it seems more like the main theme is our desire to humanise the nonhuman. Frank cannot fathom pressing a button that would erase the memories that he and the robot have shared. As preposterous as Frank knows this is, to the very last scene of the film he is hoping to make some sort of emotional connection to what is a silicon-based life form. In other words, anything but human.

'Robot and Frank', which does not open in Germany until the end of October 2012, is part Odd Couple and part The Bank Job, but more than that it is a study of someone who at first appears to be a misanthrope. Through the course of the story, we see that he is so much more than that. He simply does not want to give up what he does best.


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