Robot & Frank review

Andrew Moraitis checks out this low-key sci-fi effort, which played at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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In Robot & Frank, writer Christopher Ford delivers a cool sci-fi twist to a familiar set-up. Frank Langella is Frank, a former thief struggling with the effects of dementia. His son (James Marsden) doesn’t know how to help, so he purchases a robot (soothingly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) as a mental health assistant for his father. At first uncomfortable with the ever-present robot, Frank perks up when he discovers the robot’s other skills, including thievery.

This clearly does not have the budget, visual know-how or even the ambition of a
Cameron or Scott film. This is a very low-tech world, and – whilst director Jake Schreier’s visual choices are never quite amazing – he never loses focus on the characters and their emotional demands. It is refreshing, however, to see such a small-scale drama within this genre. Robot & Frank isn’t the hero’s journey (again) or another rip-off of Mary Shelley, but it is a genuinely character-driven drama that expresses interesting thematic and psychological ideas within the genre. Have you ever seen a science fiction film about dementia?

Some of the supporting performances are inadequate – Susan Sarandon, frankly, looks
a little lost in an unexpectedly challenging role as a librarian – but Schreier elicits excellent performances from the key actors. Langella doesn’t beg for sympathy in the well-drawn role of Frank: he’s as much an irresponsible father to his disappointed children and an ultra-professional thief as he is a victim of a disorder. The veteran essays the role with officious charm and sensitivity, giving his relationship with a robot emotional heft. Sarsgaard, too, nails the voice of the robot, offering a mellifluous interpretation of the sweet character: it’s a credit to the design and the voice work that you never question the character’s integrity, HAL-style.

With emotional dimension and unpretentious comedy, Robot & Frank is a quiet surprise.

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