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Stephanie Ogrodnik [Celluloid 08.20.12] scifi comedy drama

Amidst major studio releases and an onslaught of superhero films, a modest independent sci-fi, drama, comedy feature has continued to keep its head well above water, since its premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. With all the positive feedback buzzing around Robot & Frank, alongside intriguing poster art and trailers, I was almost concerned that the thrill of the film would be wasted by the time I got into a screening. After all, sometimes the greatest poison to a good film is having everyone tell you it's a great film. However, in finally viewing the Robot & Frank I can say that while it is not without its flaws, it is a passionate, well-constructed film that deserves to be recognized and remembered through the fray.

"Who's responsible for you?" shouts a bitter store clerk, fed up with Frank's petty theft. For Frank's son, Hunter, getting a robot caretaker is simply a practical way to assure that his father will be kept in good health, giving him time for his own family. For Frank, it's yet another implication that he, a man who once scaled buildings to break through high-tech security systems, is no longer capable of handling basic day-to-day tasks. As we see in the trailer, Frank is somewhat determined to make this new adjustment difficult. However, once he discovers that plotting complex theft and jewel heists fit into his new robot buddy's criteria for mental exercise their relationship changes drastically.

This could have easily been yet another sci-fi about the controversial debate over whether or not a robot with highly advanced A.I. technology can truly become self aware, and if such a piece of technology could ever be a proper "friend" to a human. As Frank's forgetfulness surpasses the simple concerns of missed plans and acquaintances' names, it becomes clear that the information he stores into his robot is not only valuable to their heists. This relationship is not just a man and his robot, but a man and his memories. Not only does this separate Robot & Frank from so many other films like it, but it also adds a much thicker, impacting layer to the plot and protagonist. The concept of what separates humanity from inhumanity (and the fun prospect of having robotic companions) may always be fascinating or unnerving from a distance, but we already know the effects of senility. Here we have these science fiction "what-if's" colliding with the very real fear of aging in a world that's often unsympathetic toward its past, and ready to move forward without you. To Frank, even a robot's memory is precious, even if it's holding evidence.

We recognize the people, from the successful but unappreciated son to the overly judgmental activist daughter, who we know silently congratulates herself on her own efforts. Frank Langella's performance brings the lovably bitter protagonist Frank to life, as a cut and dry retired jewel thief, who can give two shits about formalities and a healthy diet. We respect his healthy hatred of yuppies and his determination to maintain his independence, despite his obvious denial in his worsening dementia. Between Langella's acting and Christopher D. Ford's writing, we even manage to avoid the hazard of dragging exposition. Cracking safes and tricking security systems is fascinating on the surface but can be tedious to learn. However, when we hear Frank explaining his methods to his robot, and thus teaching the audience, it doesn't sound or feel like a writer going through the necessary motions to keep us in the loop. This is a proud man who is extremely passionate about these skills he's acquired through time and experience, and his enthusiasm is intoxicating.

This is one of the few films I have seen in which the near distant future not only appears plausible but perhaps within reach. We already have voice dialing, but in Frank's world, it's simply standard to have voice dialing, voice answering and video chats, synced with a flat screen home phone. Cell phones function in a similar manner, with video calls popping up on almost razor thin translucent screens. Despite the advancement in technology, the reception when calling internationally is still a bit shoddy. It's little details such as this, adding practical technological advancements, mixed with current technology inconveniences that make us feel as though we're in a world that we can see ourselves part of in the next few years. The social discrepancies, such people being "politically aligned" against the robot initiative and libraries being "re-imagined" for a younger crowd reflect relevant debates of promoting laziness within the country through streamlining productivity and the dying interest in print media.

One could easily say that this film is cheesy, even bordering on the line of predictability. As a film about an elderly man, slipping into dementia and befriending a robot, it definitely has its share of heavy emotional purging. Nevertheless, this story is refreshingly unique. Frank's biting quips against his task-driven robot's own sharp wit makes for a hilariously touching pair, making it difficult not to become emotionally invested in their relationship. Even if certain plot points are foreseeable it doesn't compromise their impact, which is an important mark for any strong film.

This is Jake Schreier's feature directorial debut and definitely not a bad start. Schreier and Ford attended NYU, where Ford wrote and directed the short film that would eventually become Robot & Frank-Schreier was its producer. As such a well-rounded film, beautifully shot, with a talented cast portraying a compelling group of characters, these filmmakers have set the bar high for themselves. As of now, it seems that while Ford has a few upcoming projects, Schreier is unsure what his next move might be. However, as interest continues to spread around Robot & Frank, it'll be easy to see this director's name on equally promising projects in the future.

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