Almost Human: Frank Langella Accepts His Inner Machine

City Pulse | August 20, 2012
Christopher D. Ford’s magical realist comedy “Robot and Frank” isn’t developed enough to withstand narrative scrutiny. However, from an actor’s showcase perspective, the film allows the redoubtable Frank Langella to cast his glowing spell over his audience. The effect is indeed magical.

Langella masterfully plays Frank, an aging cat burglar living in the semi-rural community of Cold Spring, New York. During his heyday, Frank was one of the best "second-story men" in the trade. Frank has served hard time — twice — for his crimes. Once was for tax evasion. Nowadays, Frank has a hard time remembering to take out the trash. Dementia is setting in. Langella’s delicate physicalization of his character’s deteriorating mental and emotional state is a thing of beauty. Not many actors could so skillfully define the gray areas of cognitive disorder, and still make it soulfully funny.

In the movie's weakest supporting role, James Marsden plays Frank's impatient but caring son Hunter. It’s painful to watch Marsden struggle with a role he can’t get a grip on. Living too far away to provide the frequent assistance Frank needs, Hunter buys the old man a nameless robot butler (brilliantly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Crotchety old Frank fights tooth-and-nail against the electronic assistant until he discovers how his new friend could be of use in conducting a few local thefts. Robot appreciates the idea because it helps stem the tide of Frank’s fading mental and physical capacity.

Much of the film’s low-key humor derives from Frank’s punishing treatment of the cube-like android. For his unseen vocal contributions to the story, Peter Sarsgaard imbues the mechanical object with a believable warmth and innocent ignorance. It seems only natural that the Robot is at once ahead of Frank’s devious ideas, and yet not entirely able to grasp the extent of Frank’s deteriorating mental capacity.

Susan Sarandon is a welcome presence as Jennifer, head of the doomed local library, where books are being phased out. The filmmaker makes a disapproving editorial note about the quickly fading presence of actual books from society. Frank wants to steal a book from the library to give Jennifer as a token of his affection for her. Frank’s romantic feelings for Jennifer provide the film with a much-needed emotional hook that also serves to ground the story in its minor-key resolution.

“Robot and Frank” almost has everything it needs to be a truly evocative and moving film--but not quite enough. Sub-plots involving Frank’s son and daughter (Liv Tyler) feel forced and artificial. You could that the film would be improved by deleting the long-distance-daughter subplot entirely. Also, the film’s third act feels rushed and slight in relation to what came before. Nonetheless, there’s much to appreciate in Frank Langella’s artful performance opposite an empathetic robot. They’re an enjoyably odd couple to spend some quality time with.

Rated PG-13. 90 mins. (B-) (Three Stars – out of five/no halves)

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