Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Robot & Frank

{Robot & Frank opens at The Egyptian today, Friday 8/31, through Thursday, 9/6}

The near future, as imagined by Jake Schrier in his feature film debut Robot & Frank, forgoes silver jumpsuits and flying cars in favor of a refreshingly plausible iteration, where the main observable difference (besides the run-down Prius with fading paint) is that the adults are named Madison and Hunter and Ava and Jake.  Susan Sarandon plays a Susan-Sarandon-aged character named Jennifer, which carbon dates her to around 1975.

The other notable advancement is that helper robots are around to cook and clean for, say, crotchety ex-cat-burglars like Frank Langella’s Frank, whose declining memory and the legacy of his lousy parenting skills make him an ideal candidate for robotic assistance. No one, even his own children, could reasonably be expected to put up with him for long. If he weren’t Frank Langella, who’s totally awesome as always, he’d be an insufferable pain in the ass.

But the robot, who’s programmed to be somewhat charmingly emotionally manipulative, teases out the best in him. Its primary function is to prevent Frank from declining both physically and mentally, but its programming doesn’t include moral or ethical overrides. If something makes Frank healthier, the robot’s authorized to consider it. So when Frank refuses to take up tomato gardening, Robot helps him brush off his thieving skills instead, with the condition that it will intervene if the risk of physical harm becomes too great. So they commence a-thievin’, with some pleasant sidelines into the value of companionship and the notion of personhood.

The performances are great, and help smooth over some of the tonal missteps here and there (rookie mistakes?). Liv Tyler is right in her wheelhouse as a well-meaning but slightly out-of-touch do-gooder, and James Marsters proves again that he deserves more roles allowing him to act with more than his cheekbones and special effect sunglasses (not hatin'!). This sort of movie would never win an Oscar for set design or costuming, but it’s a great example of how helpful it is when the wallpaper is really plausible, or when the middle-class idealist daughter wears just the right kind of pricey bohemian ethnic shirt. My principal complaint is that there’s an unnecessary and implausible twist towards the end (though I’ve read other reviews that loved it, so YMMV), but otherwise it’s thoroughly enjoyable.