This is one of those movies where the trailer seems to give away the whole thing, like Hope Springs.
In fact, if you haven’t seen the trailer, skip these next few paragraphs and go see the movie instead.
The story, as seen in the trailer: In the near future, crotchety old Frank (Frank Langella) walks to the library to check out books and the librarian (Susan Sarandon), taking the occasional call from his hippie-activist daughter (Liv Tyler) and harassing his son (James Marsden) who decides to get him a robot.
Frank hates the robot until he realizes he can teach it how to steal, and since Frank is a former cat burglar surrounded by rich hipster doofuses (he calls them “yuppies” ‘cause he’s old), this finally enlivens him. He begins to actually like the robot, which causes problems when he’s suspected for the crimes and the robot’s memory could be used to incriminate him.
That’s all in the trailer.
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But unlike Hope Springs, the trailer doesn’t come close to capturing either the humor or the depth of the movie. It makes you feel like you’ve seen the whole movie, which was amusing but maybe a little cutesy.
The actual movie, while funny, steers hard away from anything cute. The impetus, in part, for the son getting the robot is that Frank’s memory is fading. This sets up an interesting parallel that challenges our ideas of identity and existence.
And yet, the robot—charmingly blandly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, and perfectly acted by Rachel Ma—never aspires to anything beyond itself. It insists that it does not exist, that it is nothing more than a program and set of memories, and feels nothing about its own continuation. Its selflessness and focus on getting Frank better is precisely what allows Frank to manipulate it.
That’s kind of a mind twister right there. The robot’s entirely artificial “humanity” allows the rather narcissistic and criminal Frank to twist it to his ends. Despite this dark under-pinning, it’s an essentially upbeat film.
The supporting cast is all wonderful—Jeremy Sisto has a small, charming role as the local sheriff—but, once again (and it’s been too long), what we really have is the Frank Langella show. It’s not quite the same as Frost/Nixon, in the sense that while Frank is a larger-than-life character, the supporting characters are all pretty easy to empathize with. You get the idea that his long-suffering family would be justified in abandoning him.
Of course, Langella is totally plausible as someone who could pull this off. He’s charming. Even as a stooped-over old-man, he still towers over most of the cast. There is this terrific poignancy, too, as one gets a sense of human dignity and the beauty of humans living out their aspirations even when those aspirations aren’t necessarily noble.
Where films working the “cute old folk” angle tend to neuter them, or make them stereotypically feisty or crusty, but ultimately harmless, on a good day, Frank is self-absorbed, cunning and even criminal.
And this film makes you want him to go on, to get that next score.
This, of course, has a lot to do with Langella’s great performance. Newcomers Jake Schreir (director) and Christopher D. Ford (writer) have put together a solid film, with no wasted space and which teases a lot of interesting philosophical questions while keeping a funny, lively pace throughout. The music by “Francis and the Lights” is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo, The Green Mile) which I think was a very good choice.
The Boy and The Flower both enjoyed very much, though I think I enjoyed it more.