Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Robot & Frank

Alternate Title:  Desperately Seeking Asimov

One sentence synopsis:  An elderly, retired cat burglar plans to commit crimes using his medical assistance robot.

Things Havoc liked:  An old man lives alone in the woods of New York. He is losing his memory. His son, unable or unwilling to visit him as often as necessary, decides the time has come to seek professional help, a prospect that the cantankerous old man resents and resists. At first he belittles his new caretaker, chafing against the intrusion in his life, but before too long they begin to bond over the most unlikely of passtimes, ultimately becoming close friends, despite the efforts of the rest of society to separate them. Sound familiar? Well that's because it is, save that this movie takes place in the near future, the caretaker is an autonomous servant-robot, of the sort that Japan is presently trying to produce, and the activity that the two bond over is the old man's old profession, jewel theft.

Frank Langella is a masterful actor, and I've loved every single thing I've ever seen him in without exception (stop bringing up Cutthroat Island, damn you!). Here, he plays Frank, a man just beginning the slide downward into Alzheimer's, increasingly forgetful but still capable of planning heists, or reminiscing on his glory days as a cat burglar. Frank is not a loveable old man, but neither is he the cartoonish old bastard designed to either have epiphanies or reveal his children as secular saints. He seems to acknowledge that he was not the greatest father to his children, but that was a long time ago, and he is still on speaking and visiting terms with both of them (James Marsden and Liv Tyler), at least initially. He strikes me as the sort of person whose presence is tolerable only in small doses, which of course leads to the device of the robot.

Designed very much along the lines of existing prototype Japanese service robots, the robot (it has no name) is voiced by Peter Saarsgard's best HAL 9000 impression, though the comparison stops there. Only a robot would be patient enough to put up with Frank for an extended period of time, particularly given that his general philosophy when dealing with something he dislikes is to annoy it to death, something obviously impossible here. The robot is clearly designed with the elderly in mind, and it is its unflagging desire to improve Frank's mental capabilities by giving him a "project" that leads it to agree to lessons in lockpicking and burglary, culminating of course in grand larceny. It is in the crimes, and the aftermath thereof, that the movie finds its strongest chord, alternating between hilarity as Frank enacts convoluted plans to throw off the pursuit that his crimes have engendered, and scenes played for pathos as Frank confronts the fact that the robot, as a machine, may be used as evidence against him (a fact the robot itself brings up). All along, Frank's deteriorating memory renders an increasingly unstable narrator, leading ultimately in directions one might not expect.

And yet, despite the outlandish premise and futuristic robotics, the movie has a verisimilitude to it that most films only aspire to. Aside from the robots and a couple of smart-car looking vehicles, the film feels very present-centered, interludes of high technology layered over a familiar world. The family interactions between Frank and his children feel real. His son tries, despite himself to do right by his distant, ex-con father, allowing his frustrations to explode only when the situation properly warrants it. His daughter on the other hand, a crusading social-justice-seeking control freak, clearly means well when she shows up unexpectedly at her father's house and completely takes over his life. Yet at the same time, Frank doesn't hesitate to rope his son unwillingly into his plan to evade the law, nor does his son shy away from hitting back as hard as he can when he does so.

Things Havoc disliked:  The central conceit of the movie is that all evidence to the contrary, the robot is not alive, a fact it repeats to us multiple times. All well and good, but the robot is advanced enough to lie to Frank about its feelings in order to get him to agree to a course of action, and to evaluate independantly whether or not Frank should pursue a given criminal operation. At risk of quoting Alan Turing, exactly what is there to distinguish between this robot and a living thing? Self-preservation instincts?

Leaving the metaphysics aside, this movie is all over the map emotionally. Normally that wouldn't be a problem for me, as I like a little drama with my comedy and vice versa. But the pacing of the film is such that very heavy, very sad elements of the film are sandwitched between quasi-farcical numbers wherein Frank absconds with his robot and runs through the woods. Each scene works well independently of the others, but the aggregate sometimes leaves one with mood whiplash, particularly towards the latter half of the film.

Also, in a movie this real, the character of Jake, the ostensible antagonist of the film, is gratingly inappropriate. That Jake is a snooty rich asshole, I can accept. That he morphs overnight into a paranoid revenge-obsessed fanatic and that the police permit him to be such a thing while interfering in their investigations, I cannot accept. Moreover, his character's motivations open doors the movie should not be opening. Knowing what we know by the end of the film, and operating under the assumption that Jake must know these things from the get-go, why does he insist that Frank never return to the library?

Final thoughts:  These are all more or less nitpicks, and are not the reason that the film didn't score higher. That comes from a simple lack of ambition on the part of the film. It has a simple story to tell and wishes to tell it without diving deeper into the subjects that it takes on, which is fine I suppose. I do wish the movie had gone more into the nature of the robot, Frank's mentality, or other directions that it seemed to be hinting at, but fundamentally this film is a good story told well, and that's nothing to take for granted.

Final Score:  7/10

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