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Robot & Frank (2012)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 2/12/2013

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/19/2013

The independent film is still alive and well today, but the definition of this genre has evolved over the years. Due to the advent of HD filmmaking, there are more people then ever making and distributing their own movies. In the 80s, "independent" films were made by adventurous groups who then sold the distribution rights to the movies to a major studio. Many of these films were low-budget horror movies, as the studios were looking to cash in on the latest trends. This sort of system still exists today, but so many of these movies are interchangeable "slice of life" films which show no individuality. Seemingly gone are the days when an independent film took the chance of brining us a story which no one else would. Thankfully, we still have movies like Robot & Frank to fill that void.

Robot & Frank takes place in the near future. Frank (Frank Langella) lives by himself on the outskirts of a small town. He is an ex-con whose specialty was burglary. He's also suffering from the early symptoms of Alzhemier's Disease. However, Frank can still get out on his own, and he enjoys visiting the library (which is about to be closed) and the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Concerned for his father's well-being, Frank's son, Hunter (James Marsden), gets Frank a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help around the house. At first, Frank is very resistant to this, but he soon grows fond of the robot's cooking and his company. Then, Frank realizes that the robot can be trained to do most anything and realizes that he would be the perfect accomplice for a great crime.

If Robot & Frank sounds like sort of an odd film, that's because it is. But, it's also a clever film which takes you by surprise. The story is a jumble of genres, as we have science-fiction, comedy, bittersweet drama, action, and romance. The sci-fi elements are very subtle and don't intrude on the other parts of the story -- we are introduced to a world in which service robots exist. We never learn how long they've been around or how the technology was developed, as it doesn't matter. The Robot and Frank has some exchanges which are quite funny and while Sarsgaard keeps his voice very level, we can always hear the sarcasm hiding behind it. The film does a good job of balancing these lighter scenes with the more serious ones, especially those in which it becomes obvious that Frank' memory issues are serious.

The film really hinges on the relationships and the progression of the story. At the outset, Frank is both pitiful and unlikable. We see a man who can't take care of himself, but won't let others help him. Once the robot arrives, he helps to get Frank out of his shell (ironically, as the robot's body is a hard plastic casing). As Frank interacts more with the robot, his memory improves and he becomes more outgoing towards Jennifer. But, more importantly for us, Frank and the robot form a very realistic odd couple relationship and their scenes together are delightful. In fact, when the robot leaves the movie for a period, it's both sad for Frank, as he misses his new friend, and sad for the audience, as we miss their wordplay. Screenwriter Christopher D. Ford has created a truly unique tale here, so it's unfortunate that he didn't know how to end it. The third act gets bogged down with the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto) investigating Frank. There is also a huge twist revealed that rings as really hollow. It's one of those where we say, "No way...wait, what?", as the revelation is surprising at first, but as it sinks in, we realize that it doesn't quite fit. The film's coda is simply depressing.

Despite its shortcomings, Robot & Frank is a truly unique experience which breaks away from the typical mold of the independent film. I would liken it to Safety Not Guaranteed, which also combined sci-fi with drama, but Robot & Frank isn't as broad as that film. Frank Langella is wonderful as Frank, as he's asked to be cantankerous, charming, and vulnerable all in one performance. Again, his interactions with Sarsgaard are great. (I wonder if they recorded together.) The film won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2012 Charleston International Film Festival (where my screenplay was a finalist) and it's easy to understand why a crowd would applaud this enchanting film.

Robot & Frank gives all of the best lines to the robot on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no evident grain and no defects from the source materials. Director Jake Schreir has shot the film in a very natural way, delivering a crisp image. The colors look good and the picture is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good and the scenes on the road have good depth for a DVD. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are well-done, most notably those which alert us to sounds coming from off-screen. These effects show good separation. A party scenes provide nice surround sound effects, and the one action scene brings us some mild subwoofer action.

The Robot & Frank DVD contains only two extras. We get an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Jake Schreier and Writer Christopher Ford. "Robot Poster Campaign Gallery" offers a series of posters for the VGC-60l, showing the device doing many helpful things.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.