August 30, 2012

‘Robot & Frank’: Programmed for humanity | 3 stars

“Robot & Frank” is so endearing it’s easy to forget it’s science fiction.

“Robot Frank” is so endearing it’s easy to forget it’s science fiction.

But not what is considered science fiction nowadays — computer-generated creatures battling snarky human heroes in summer event movies. Those really are just pumped-up Westerns.

No, the true genre is all about our humanity, and how it either redeems or fails us.

Frank (played by Frank Langella) falls into the failed category. Divorced and a general pain in the posterior to his kids, he lives in a large, unkempt home, where his worsening dementia is making him a danger to himself.

Enter prodigal son Hunter (James Marsden), who buys Frank a robot caretaker programmed to look after the old guy and stimulate his mental and physical health. Frank appreciates the robot about as much as Granny might appreciate the latest smartphone.

“That thing’s going to kill me in my sleep,” he gripes.

Up to this point, “Robot Frank” looks to be a 21st century “Driving Miss Daisy” or “On Golden Pond.” The sort of film where a grumpy old codger learns life lessons from a new person in his life, and then eventually someone dies — cue the credits and the hankies.

One of the pleasant surprises of “Frank Robot,” however, is how it never stumbles into cliche.

Despite appearances as a gentle geezer and regular patron of the library in his quaint town, Frank is a fairly despicable guy, a less lovable version of Gene Hackman’s reprobate patriarch in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” He’s an unrepentant ex-con who is not above manipulating one of his children against the other or stealing from the local knickknack shop.

When Frank discovers that Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) has little sense of right and wrong or the law, he enlists it to help him get back in the burglary game. Robot’s objective, after all, is to improve Frank’s health, and Frank is at his best intellectually when he’s planning heists.

Langella, 74 himself, plays Frank not so much as a stereotypical senile old man but as an older man whose brain is starting to make bad connections. He repeatedly forgets that his favorite cafe closed long ago, for example, but instead of throwing a fit when someone corrects him, he asks, “What do you mean it’s closed? I just ate there last week.” Then when he realizes his mistake, there’s a moment of confusion, and he moves on.

While Frank is planning break-ins, Langella puts an extra lift in his step and a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. With some clever postural and facial adjustments, Frank suddenly becomes 10 years younger. And his romance with Jennifer the librarian (Susan Sarandon) is as sweet as it is quietly devastating.

This is Jake Schreier’s feature-length directorial debut, and he accomplishes more than similarly themed big-budget films. Will Smith’s “I, Robot” and Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” were several million dollars more expensive (and many decibels louder), but Schreier’s film is more thoughtful. Robot is self-aware, but is he sentient? Conversely, are Frank’s decisions intentional, or is he just repeating his previous “programming”?

But the film doesn’t overwhelm with its big thoughts. No long dissertations here on the dangers of technology or over-the-top arguments for the rights of humanity. It’s subtle, quiet and poignant stuff — low-fi sci-fi for the curious of mind.

(At the Leawood and Tivoli.)

Entertainment editor David Frese can be reached at dfrese@kcstar.com.

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