Wednesday, September 19, 2012

“Robot and Frank” Hits Close to Home

In this touching comedy set in the near future, Frank Langella plays a retired cat burglar named Frank living alone and going to seed. In the opening scenes, as he pads around his slovenly house in his pajamas and pours milk into his cereal only to discover that the milk has gone sour, I turned to Katie and said, “See, that’s why I want to die before you do. That’s what would happen to me if I were left alone.” I was only half joking.

I’m sure that if Katie predeceased me, one or both of our daughters would look in on me once in a while. But would they buy me a robot? That’s what Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) does. He programs “Robot,” who never has another name, to keep house for Dad and to mind the old man’s diet and exercise habits.

As we get to know Frank and his children, including Liv Tyler as his daughter Madison, we understand that he hasn’t always been the best father. For example, there were those prison terms and the way he had Madison fence stolen goods for him. There was also the divorce from Hunter and Madison’s mother thirty years ago. We’d feel sorry for Frank in his loneliness if he weren’t such a tough old bastard.

The story turns on his growing friendship with Robot. At first Frank wants the thing out of his house, but then he realizes that Robot can help him get back in the game. Robot shows a knack for picking locks. He can also try every three-number combination on a safe in under two hours. Frank dresses in black and drapes a hilarious black cape over the white robot’s shoulders, and the unlikely cronies set out to rob a local library of a valuable edition of Don Quixote.

I won’t divulge any more details of what is by turns a caper, a buddy film, a family comedy, and a moving study of aging and dementia. The choice of Don Quixote is not random. Frank and Robot are Quixote and Sancho Panza, and you will find yourself asking the same questions about them as readers do about Cervantes: Who are the mad ones? The elderly old crank who launches into mad adventures, or the younger “normal” people around him?

For me, “Robot and Frank” raised important questions about dementia. What’s really going on in people who begin to lose their memory and attentiveness? I know that I already have some Frank in me—not so much demented as simply moving inside myself, into a world removed from the interests of the younger world. I know that sometimes I look distracted to my loved ones, more interested in my own thoughts than in what’s going on around me. This does not feel like dementia, and I try not to apologize for it. After all, I am still passionately interested in life—as is Frank in the movie—but it’s a different sort of life.

“Robot and Frank” has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. One of the least surprising is evidence near the end of the story that Frank, though others think him far gone, still has a few marbles left. They’re just not the kind of marbles anyone else thinks worth having. But then the same could be said of Don Quixote.

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