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PARK CITY — The kind of light-touch comedy Sundancers pray for, Robot & Frank reminds quirk-hardened veterans that an odd premise and big heart don’t have to add up to too-precious awards bait. Any distributor that can’t sell a crowd-pleaser like this is in the wrong business.
PHOTOS: Sundance 2012’s Hottest Films
Frank Langella plays Frank, a onetime cat burglar whose wife left long ago and whose two grown kids, worried over his increasing memory loss, are tempted to put him in a home. This being “the near future,” Frank’s son chooses another option: Against the old man’s wishes, he buys a walking, talking humanoid robot programmed to improve Frank’s physical and mental health. (Peter Sarsgaard lends Robot his voice, eschewing HAL 9000 cliches in favor of believable naturalism.)
Now Frank, a snarky old dude to begin with (and one given to shoplifting decorative soaps from a local shop) has a proper foil. “That cereal is for children,” Robot says of a Froot Loops breakfast. “You’re for children, idiot,” Frank replies.
It’s funnier when Langella says it, which is true of most every quip and gesture in the actor’s wry, uningratiating performance. Christopher Ford’s script helps, giving Frank a sharp-eyed curiosity about his new techno-caretaker and only once or twice ignoring logic for the sake of a plot point.
PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance 2012
We smell a rumble when, on his regular trip to the library run by sexy spinster Susan Sarandon, Frank is patronized by a rich hipster (Jeremy Strong) who intends to turn the building into an “augmented reality” community center where bound books are just fashion accessories. Before long, Frank has convinced Robot that it would be very, very good for his mental agility to plan a proper heist, with Strong the worthy victim.
First-time director Jake Schreier has fun here, playing the robo-assisted caper against the increasing concern Frank’s kids (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) have for his situation. There’s baggage aplenty in the ex-con’s parenting history, but the film thankfully underplays that melodrama, reserving its most poignant moments for interactions between man and microchip. Apple fanatics might fetishize the iPhone’s Siri and Steve Jobs’s other user-friendly innovations, but do any of them love their computers enough to risk jail time instead of reformatting a hard drive?
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres
Production Company: Park Pictures Features
Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenwriter: Christopher D. Ford
Producers: Galt Niederhoffer, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord
Executive producers: Danny Rifkin, Bob Kelman, Tom Valerio, Bill Perry, Jeremy Bailor, Ann Porter, Stefan Sonnenfeld
Director of photography: Matthew J. Lloyd
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Music: Francis and the Lights
Costume designer: Erika Munro
Editor: Jacob Craycroft
Sales: Dina Kuperstock, CAA / Jessica Lacy, ICM
No rating, 88 minutes
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