Film
12:00 am
Mon October 8, 2012

"Robot and Frank" premieres at The Little Theatre in Kalamazoo

Credit Kalamazoo Film Society
James Sanford's review of Robot & Frank

The Kalamazoo Film Society will show Robot and Frank at The Little Theatre through Sunday. 

Back in the late 1970's, many people expected Frank Langella to become a leading man along the lines of Warren Beatty or Robert Redford. After more than a decade in the business, he’d finally broken into the big leagues in 1977 by playing a darkly seductive Count Dracula in a highly successful Broadway production.

When he reprised the role in director John Badham’s 1979 film, it seemed to signal his arrival as a genuine movie star. That didn’t turn out quite the way everyone expected though. Langella was always more interested in the stage than he was in wooing Hollywood. He won Tonys instead of Oscars, and settled for snagging choice supporting roles in films instead of seizing the spotlight.

Over the years he would add a touch of class to everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s male-pregnancy comedy Junior to Body of Evidence, Madonna’s failed attempt at a carbon copy of Basic Instinct. And yes, many of us still have fond memories of his portrayal of Skeletor in the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie.

But at the age when most screen stars bow out gracefully, the 74-year-old Langella has re-emerged with a vengeance. He earned an Oscar nomination for best actor as Richard Nixon in director Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon and snagged strong roles in Starting Out in the Evening, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and the Cameron Diaz thriller The Box.

All those years of working in theater have given him the ability to project maximum emotion with seemingly minimal effort, a talent that serves him wonderfully well in Robot & Frank, an endearingly low-key story about a peculiar partnership. Set in the near-future, Robot & Frank introduces us to Frank Weld, a former cat burglar who is out of step with the ever-changing world in which he lives.

Frank’s memory plays cruel tricks on him on a daily basis. He heads off to lunch at his favorite restaurant, only to find it’s been closed for ages. He thinks his son Hunter, played by James Marsden, is still at Princeton, but Hunter actually graduated 15 years ago. The only place he seems to feel comfortable is the local library, where he can talk about days gone by and flirt with librarian Jennifer, played by Susan Sarandon.

Although Frank’s situation is a sad one, Langella doesn’t build his characterization around the man’s weak points. He manages to suggest Frank’s frailty without underlining it or making it the focal point of the film. It’s a beautifully modulated performance, and Sarandon supports it marvelously with her own brand of understated intensity. Worried about his dad’s mental stability, Hunter buys Frank a robotic assistant to help around the house and keep Frank on a strict schedule.

Frank initially resents this high-tech Mary Poppins until he realizes the robot could be a major asset in a final heist. He’s determined to get revenge on Jennifer’s supercilious boss, a sneering Yuppie, played by Jeremy Strong. And Frank is convinced that with the assistance of the robot’s code-cracking electronic brain, breaking and entering should be easier than ever.

There are elements of science-fiction, sentimental drama and a caper comedy in Christopher D. Ford’s screenplay, but Robot & Frank never leans very heavily on any of them. Instead, the story is driven by its well-drawn characters. Although the robot has a blank black screen for a face, it speaks in Peter Sarsgaard’s warm but wary voice, which gives it an amusingly offbeat sort of personality.

While many screenwriters would have concentrated on Frank’s planning of the robbery, Ford pays more attention to the circumstances that make Frank feel like he has to pull off one last job, such as his need to impress Jennifer and his uneasy relationships with his children. Liv Tyler plays Madison, Frank’s well-meaning but intrusive daughter, who is confident she can do a better job of managing Frank than the robot can. Tyler has never been a particularly vivid actress, but in her scenes with Langella she convincingly brings out Madison’s simmering frustrations, both with her father and herself.

Marsden is also very good at showing Hunter’s increasing exasperation as he tries to help out a dad who was never there to help him years ago. Director Jake Schrier allows the actors enough space to make these connections convincing. Nothing in “Robot and Frank” feels forced or – pardon the pun – mechanical. Instead of straining for big effects, Schrier and his cast let the comedy and the tenderness in the script emerge naturally, and the result is one of the year’s happiest surprises.

The Kalamazoo Film Society presents Robot & Frank Friday, Saturday and Sunday at The Little Theatre on Western’s East Campus.