Partners in crime
Robots are coming! Movies usually treat this premonition as a cue for man-versus-machine battles or a morality tale, but first-time director Jake Schreier takes a more considered and realistic view in his light-hearted thriller Robot & Frank.
Frank, played by the ever-impressive Frank Langella, lives on his own in upstate New York. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), worries about him and once a week makes the 10-hour round trip to check in on his dad, who suffers from dementia.
Frank is a stubborn man who spends his time talking to his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), by videophone and visiting librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). His son hopes that a gift of a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), a faceless machine designed to do menial chores such as cooking and cleaning, will help make Frank's twilight years more manageable.
The arrival of robots into the home is presented as inevitable. Just as computers are omnipresent, robots will one day be. ''That's kind of a subtle thing at the beginning,'' Schreier says. ''Frank knows about robots and has seen them. We were always trying to make a movie where the robots were not evil and try and kill people or magically turn out to have a heart. We wanted to do something in between the two and grounded so that we can move on to the next level of debate.''
That debate is how robots can help humans. A central theme is the value of memory. With an ageing population, memory loss from diseases such as Alzheimer's is an increasingly pertinent topic and in the film the robot is the ultimate memory machine, retaining information that allows humans to forget.
''That became the crux of the film,'' Schreier says. ''To have a character where memory is the most important thing and who doesn't understand what is going on.''
The drama heightens when Frank realises that the robot has the tools to help him resume his criminal career as a cat burglar.
''It's good to watch people come back to life,'' Schreier says. ''The robot and Frank had to have some project together … [and] cat burglary must be one of the most sympathetic crimes to watch; after all, you're only stealing from rich people.''
It was this great moral conundrum that attracted Langella to the project. On board at a very early stage, the septuagenarian actor spent eight months helping shape the project before production started.
The star, who received an Oscar nomination for his 2008 turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, says: ''I'm 74 and I'm healthy and I still, I think, got all my marbles and I'm physically OK but the law of averages is that sometime in the next decade something will happen to me; you can't avoid it. To find a script in which an old man is facing his mortality and facing his ultimate demise and still maintaining an irascible determination to be a son of a bitch … [is fantastic]. He's basically saying I'll live my life, and if you want to get me a robot I'll take it and teach it how to rob. I thought that was so original.''
Langella is one of the few actors that age cannot wither. His career goes from strength to strength. Even his recent book, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them, in which he candidly recounts his relationships with stars such as Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Olivier and Jackie Onassis was a resounding critical success.
He's a charming, endearing fellow and he uses his charisma to make Frank so appealing. The New Jersey native posits that fact and fiction may not be far apart. ''I like playing parts that absolutely intrigue me … and trying to find out how many of the qualities in that person are within me and then try to exploit them,'' he says.
As for robots, he says he would like one to cook and clean, ''and if it were female, maybe something else, too''.
ROBOT & FRANK
CRITICAL BUZZ Frank Langella is being talked up for awards for this performance.
STARS Frank Langella, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon and Liv Tyler.
DIRECTOR Jake Schreier.