Never argue with a robot; it’s utterly unsatisfying.
(2012) Science Fiction (Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard (voice) Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong, Ana Gasteyer, Bonnie Bentley, Rachel Ma, Dario Barosso, Joshua Ormond, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Jake Schreier
As we get older, it is inevitable that our bodies start to lose function. We are no longer as strong as we once were; our skin sags, our eyes grow dim, our hearing not so keen. And our brains, that most wondrous organ also can lose function; we can’t think as quickly, we have difficulty understanding and accepting new things – and worst of all, it becomes difficult for us to remember.
In the near future of, say, 20 years from now, Frank (Langella) lives on his own in an isolated house in upstate New York. His grown kids worry about him; he is suffering from some memory loss. He seems to have difficulty getting that his favorite diner closed years ago to be replaced by a bath store with a bitchy owner (Gasteyer). His flighty daughter Madison (Tyler) embraces new age causes which he thinks are goofy but he still loves her in the tolerant way parents do.
His son Hunter (Marsden), a family man and a successful lawyer, lives five hours away by car and dutifully drives up to see his dad once a week but this is proving to be a strain on his family. His solution is to by his dad a robot (Ma, voiced by Sarsgaard) which dad clearly doesn’t want. Nonetheless he’s stuck with the caretaker whom he disdainfully refuses to name.
At first Frank is wary and mistrustful; he doesn’t want help, he doesn’t need help. He just wants to be left alone to eat his breakfast cereal, walk into town where he can go to the library where the comely librarian Jennifer (Sarandon) helps him find books he hasn’t read yet.
But the library is soon going to change as a snooty software tycoon (Strong) who wants to get rid of all the books and create a library “experience” for surfing the internet – a concept that would have been good for a laugh if the reality of it weren’t so inevitable. Frank doesn’t handle change well.
There was a time when he was a cat burglar, a “second story guy” who specialized in figuring ways in. As he discovers that his robot is useful for picking locks much quicker than Frank ever could, suddenly Frank is given a project to focus on.
Of course when a certain house gets robbed, Frank becomes a suspect mainly because he’s always a suspect. He’s matching wits with a local sheriff (Sisto) who isn’t used to this kind of high end crime in his jurisdiction and shows it. Unfortunately, Frank’s mental facilities are beginning to crumble; can he pull this last job off?
There is a bittersweet quality to the movie that I like very much. This isn’t a saccharine unicorns and rainbows look at old age where our elderly sail off with dignity into a gorgeous Hollywood sunset. This is about the realities of old age; the walking outside in the bathrobe, the forgetting that that the milk has long gone sour, the difficulty of recalling the names of one’s own children. The indignities that come with a brain that is no longer at peak performance.
Langella in recent years has become as reliable a character actor as there is out there. He’s done some fine work in films as disparate as Starting Out in the Evening and Frost/Nixon. He can be a force of nature or a cynical whisper. It doesn’t seem that long ago when he lit up the New York stage as the ultra-sexy Dracula, but it has been almost 40 years. He makes Frank cantankerous but vulnerable; a man who deals with his oncoming dementia by denying it. It’s a beautiful, layered performance that should in a just world get Oscar consideration but may not have the backing to take on the big studio juggernauts like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock. That’s a pity – it’s a performance worthy of recognition.
Marsden and Sarandon have some good moments in their roles as well; Tyler’s is less memorable which is surprising since she’s usually so good. Still, she has three Oscar nominees to compete with and it’s understandable she might get lost in the mix, particularly when the role is so feather-light. Sarsgaard’s vocal performance as Robot reminded me as a cross between Kevin Spacey and HAL9000. If the good folks at Apple decide to retire Siri at any point, they should give Mr. Sarsgaard a call.
There are some moments that are gently funny, even laugh-out-loud. There are also at least two sure sniffle-inducing scenes guaranteed to tear you up if you are as sensitive as Da Queen and I both tend to be. While not everything works here, this is a very fine indie film that captures the indignities of aging with humor, dignity and grace.
REASONS TO GO: Nice dry sense of humor. Langella shines. Marsden and Sarandon are nifty as always.
REASONS TO STAY: Cops are a bit too cartoon-ish. Drags a bit through the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly bad words here and there but not many.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design of the caretaker Robot is based on the Honda ASIMO, a robot in use in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are solidly positive..
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her
ROBOT LOVERS: Not only is a robot one of the main characters and several other robots appear throughout the film, the end credits roll over video of actual robots in use today.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Trouble With the Curve