Robot & Frank

A buddy movie, a crime caper, a sensitive portrayal of aging – Jake Schreier's debut feature has Ralph McLean smiling throughout

Robot & Frank is a hard film to get a handle on. A crime caper with a subtle sci-fi spin, it tackles the thorny issue of ageing and the effect it has on the family unit with real heart and compassion. Odd as it may seem, it’s also a classic example of that old Hollywood stand by, the buddy movie.

It's a buddy movie with a difference, of course – the difference being that the buddies here are an old man and his robotic assistant – but it's a buddy movie all the same. Alongside that there are elements of the traditional heist movie to enjoy, and a twist ending that would fit well into a superior episode of The Twilight Zone? Like I say, Robot & Frank is a far from a straightforward proposition.

Which makes it the perfect film to kick-start QFT's new monthly Film Club. Hosted by film critic, Brian Henry Martin, and organised in association with UTV, the Film Club will offer members the chance to enjoy some of the finest new movie releases and talk about them afterwards with fellow cinephiles. The first Film Club meeting is on Tuesday, March 19, when Robot & Frank will be under discussion.

A deserved winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival (which is awarded to a film that deals thematically with science or technology), Robot & Frank is a film that melds old school sentimentality with the fresh-faced enthusiasm of first-time filmmakers, writer Christopher D Ford and director Jake Schreier. The result is one of the most understated but strangely charming films you will see all year.

Set in the leafy surroundings of upstate New York in 'the near future' – which looks reassuringly familiar bar the odd high speed smart car that occasionally whizzes past – it's a genuinely affecting film graced with a remarkable lead performance from Frank Langella as Frank, a cantankerous old goat whose life is falling apart as his memory crumbles and he struggles to cope with modern technology.

Frank, we swiftly discover, is a retired cat burglar who specialized in high-end jewel heists in seemingly impenetrable buildings. That is all in the past, however. Now Frank is 70-years-old, stumbling around his empty home, and everything appears to be winding down for the one-time master criminal.

Divorced and living alone, Frank forgets to buy fresh milk for his morning cereal and struggles to remember his children when they call him up on the impressive Skype-type screens in his living room. His only enjoyment seems to come from a long walk into town, where he visits the local library and flirts with the last remaining librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).

Even this minor pleasure is about to be taken away from him, though, when slimy technology consultant Jake (Jeremy Strong) arrives on the scene intent on turning the library into a virtual experience devoid of actual books.

A poor father to his grown up children, they still fuss around him. Madison (Liv Tyler) calls Frank from her globetrotting travels, and Hunter (James Marsden) makes a 10-hour round trip every week to check up on him. At the end of his tether, Hunter decides to get Frank a state-of-the-art helper robot that will look after his health and well being – and save him a fortune Hunter diesel at the same time.

Frank, a proud man, is understandably peeved by the arrival of this new home help (voiced with cool robotic ease by Peter Sarsgaard) but gradually comes to respect it. And when a trip into town results in Frank attempting to steal a bar of soap from a shop and the robot covers for him, he realizes that his little helper has no concept of morality. It might just be able to help him with his plans for a return to his old criminal ways.

Armed with a new purpose in life, Frank regains his mojo and the worrying signs of Alzheimer’s disease so prevalent early in the film are left by the roadside. It’s heartwarming stuff for sure, and while never laugh out loud funny there is a mild undercurrent of absurdity at play here that makes you smile throughout.

Jake Schreier directs it all with a sensitivity that belies his lack of experience, and just about everybody on screen – from the hippy dippy Tyler to the heart broken Sarandon – plays it with just the right amount of understatement.

It is, of course, a tribute to Langella's undeniable acting skills that he makes us believe in this spiralling relationship between man and object at all. In lesser hands such a concept could have been unbearably corny. In Langella’s hands it’s actually very touching and honest. Bizarrely, and again to his credit, he pulled it off without actually hearing Sarsgaard's note-perfect voice until he viewed the finished film.

As the authorities close in on Frank and his robotic accomplice, the film serves up its most moving moments and delivers an unexpected ending that I won’t spoil by revealing here. All things considered, Robot & Frank is a subtle triumph. Sensitive and inventive in equal measure, it has a lightness of touch that’s rare in modern cinema. Join the club and go see it.

Robot & Frank runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast from March 8 - 21.

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