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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Robot & Frank’ examines mechanics of love and aging

Robot & Frank

(PG-13)

3 stars

Considered a living legend by his peers, Frank Langella has never achieved the type of popularity among the general public his searing talent deserves. Because he is tall, dark, imposing and in possession of a gravely baritone that instantly suggests ominous dread, he has been regulated to playing heavies and villains ("Dave," "Frost/Nixon," "Lolita," "The Ninth Gate").

As Frank in "Robot & Frank," Langella is again the heavy, but not like the ones we're used to and he is also a sympathetic protagonist. Set in the unspecified "near future," "R&F" offers up an interesting scenario of what might happen to many of us in our later years if we don't want to live with our adult children or in a nursing home.

Established quickly and efficiently in the opening scenes that Frank has Alzheimer's disease, the movie doesn't offer up many answers or suggestions for a cure but does provide a highly preferable Plan B not available to us now.

Tired of driving 10 hours every weekend to look in on Frank at his remote, upstate New York home, his son Hunter (James Marsden) more than insists that Frank accept his offering of a pre-programmed robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) that will act as an all-in-one butler, valet, maid, caretaker and dietician. In a sly move, screenwriter Christopher D. Ford chooses not to give the machine a name and it is referred to throughout the film only as Robot.

Frank, of course, hates this new arrangement and nearly busts a gasket while voicing his displeasure. He denigrates Hunter, dresses down Robot and becomes the model of surly un-cooperation. What Frank doesn't understand initially is that Robot doesn't have feelings -- or an imbedded moral code -- and is totally incapable of being hurt, offended or judgmental.

When she hears of Robot, Frank's bleeding heart, save-the-world daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) goes semi-ballistic comparing what Robot does to slave labor. Because she's currently doing some kind of Peace Corps thing over in Eastern Europe, we don't hear from Madison again until later on -- which is highly preferable.

More or less resigned to the fact that Robot isn't going away, Frank -- ever the schemer -- figures out a way to turn Robot into his partner in mischief and has him act as his wing man in his romantic pursuit of local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Thanks to Robot's new garden, Frank also starts eating better, has more energy and decides to keep his mind active by coming out of retirement.

What exactly Frank once did for living is better left unmentioned, but it won't spoil too much by revealing that it wasn't exactly legal. While this newfound mental rejuvenation goes far in battling the Alzheimer's, it's not what Hunter, later Madison and eventually Jennifer had in mind. Like the proverbial cat that ate the canary, Frank relegates himself to the sidelines, grins internally and relishes every second in the attention he receives in the wake of his and Robot's adventures.

Careful not to get too cute or prophetic, Ford and director Jack Schreier are content to play out "R&F" as a quasi-morality play and a minor commentary on the possible unforeseen negative side effects of modern technology.

If programmed with an emotion or morality chip. Robot could have turned into a less dangerous version of HAL from "2001" which would have certainly taken the narrative in an entirely different, possibly unwanted direction. Robot stays vanilla-flavored for the duration, which is neither good or bad and thus dramatically neutral -- which is not such a good thing.

A late-in-arriving third act twist concerning Jennifer brings with it an unexpected but much welcomed wrinkle in the story and its ripples result in an ending that is far more rewarding and poetic than the build-up would suggest.

"Robot & Frank" is very good but not great and with just a few minor tweaks could have become something you might have had to rush out to see. Unless you're a die-hard Langella fan or anti-technology conspiracy theorist, you don't have to make seeing it now a high priority. (Samuel Goldwyn)