Monday, November 19, 2012


The opening scene in Robot and Frank tells you two things you need to know about the rest of the film: Frank still operates as a burglar and forgets things. Because of the latter his son drives up to Frank's house in the country to deliver him a robot helper. Frank is as irascible and resistant as we already might expect at this and only barely tolerates the newcomer until one crucial moment involving a loophole in the machine's programming makes it valuable.

The gap between the odd couple closes until they are mutually dependent. So far that's a buddy movie. Frank has learned to accept his ageing and the need for trust. All it needs is for him to accidentally name the robot (if he cleaves too cloyingly he could be called Cleaver).

But that's what distinguishes this piece from all those like it in the never-too-old-learn sub-genre of warm comedies. Frank never names the robot. He addresses it directly and uses its functionality as he would a toaster. That doesn't mean that the robot never gets cute - that would have to happen and does - but it does prevent the inevitable sentimentality at the end from fulsomeness. There are other things on the table here and they only start with the buddy story.

Frank is old and grumpy but he has no problem with technology. He's happy to take a wall sized  international video call from his daughter and handles his own spiffy looking mobile phone with ease. His initial objection to the robot is from his pride at being capable not fear of the future. There is no irony when Frank points to his head and describes it as a good piece of hardware. He is rightly contemptuous of the consultant who has turned the local library into a paperless goopy encounter centre and refers to Frank as a link with the past due to Frank's reliance on printed information. That's the point here, though, the younger man's assumption makes him Frank's target, far more than the defilement of the library.

After a brief encounter with some writ-large symbolism involving a rare copy of Don Quixote we are also over the notion that Frank will be tilting at windmills for a moral victory over the superficial consumer purgatory that the modern world is allowing through. So, what are we left with, then?

We're left with a film about programming. We are used to the concept from the robot but soon we're looking at human programming. The humans here are variously stronger (through conquering love) or more vulnerable (through unchanging habits) because of their programming. Yes, that's another way of saying they are psychologically determined the way any fictional character is but the focus is quite clearly on how that psychology was put together and how firmly it fufills its program.

Characters are constantly plugging into others for expected functionality in this story. Even when Frank is visited by the local cop with burglary victim in tow, the latter is filled with unwavering accusation and the former extends a request for help from Frank as a burglary expert.

Deeper still are the programs of attraction, loyalty, parenting and family and these run according to their input like everything else in the film. Even Frank's reluctance to alter the robot's growing nature, as it were, despite it being very advantageous to do so originates from the lower levels of his ethical programming. The scene in which this decision is made thus offers more than sentimentality (though that's being trowlled on at that point) by suggesting functional necessity. It's a moving scene intensified by rationalism.

There is a big twist in the tail which I won't spoil but its inventiveness should be sung here for, while it promises even more sentimentality it also depicts a series of human programs interlocking and operating in restored functionality. There is a coda which similarly asks us to acknowledge our programming, joyfully or not.

A terrific cast centred around Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon play a script that is pleasantly content with rolling out its ideas unobtrusively so that the surface interface can function so well as a warm winter years comedy while some quite dark matter works beneath. What might have been Cleaver 'n' Corky is just Robot and Frank (the character designers just used the name already attached to the actor). It's almost Safety Not Guaranteed's complement as unlike that one this uses a humanistic genre to get to some real sci fi.

Robot and Frank was a pick from the MIFF I had to miss this year. With this and the likes of  Safety Not Guaranteed and Beasts of the Southern Wild I'm getting the feeling I missed a hell of a festival.

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