24 Lies a Second: Electric Friends

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Electric Friends

Two separate trends on which I have previously commented come together in the form of Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank, currently enjoying a generous UK cinema release. This is not the biggest movie in the world, and in both scale and tone it is unmistakeably very indie-ish – but at the same time it makes deft and convincing use both of modern cinema technology and narrative tropes from traditionally mainstream genres. It is also a film deeply concerned with the lot in life and place in society of older citizens, and thus arguably making a pitch for the grey market in the same way as other recent movies like Song for Marion and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While the aging nature of western society should probably be more of a concern for everyone living in it, I am personally more immediately interested in the former.

The distinguished character actor Frank Langella, who's previously given us his interpretations of such great roles as Sherlock Holmes, Perry White, and Skeletor, not to mention appearing as the most bouffant Dracula in cinema history, plays Frank, an elderly man living alone in upstate New York. Relations with his children are not good – his son (James Marsden) lives five hours away and is often too busy to visit, while his daughter (Liv Tyler) is off travelling the world and can't do more than videophone him (we are a teeny way into the future in this movie). Physically Frank seems okay, but he is becoming increasingly mentally fragile – spells of confusion and memory loss are growing more frequent and disturbing.

But Frank's son has hit upon what he believes to be an ideal solution: he has purchased a domestic robot to live with Frank and look after him. Frank is initially less than delighted to have this cybernetic nursemaid attempting to run his life for him, but changes his opinion in a hurry when he realises that the robot, though an excellent carer, has no real moral compass nor cognisance of the laws of the land. This inspires Frank to return to one of the passions he had earlier in life – namely, being a high-end cat burglar. Previously only ever working alone, Frank finds that teaching the robot his skills at breaking and entering gives his life a direction it was previously lacking. As their criminal partnership goes from strength to strength, though, it seems that the robot is becoming more than just a guardian and an accomplice for the old man: it is the closest thing he has to a real friend...

Well, you may be thinking you've got a pretty good handle of the kind of film this is – a sentimental caper about a loveable old curmudgeon rediscovering his joie de vivre thanks to a cute droid, with some hilarious comedy lawbreaking along the way. That's probably how it looks on paper, but this movie is a lot less broad and simplistic than it could have been – it actually takes itself pretty seriously, with considerable success. The robots in this movie look and behave credibly – they don't crack jokes or suddenly manifest real emotions, they are recognisably and plausibly machines. To begin with I thought the design of Frank's robot – it sort of resembles a giant Lego version of the Stig – was a bit of a misstep, as it's not the most immediately endearing of objects, but the film consistently avoids this kind of easy get-out, working much harder to earn its pay-offs, which are all the more effective because of this.

It is, anyway, a very convincing robot: initially I found myself wondering exactly how it was operated, but very soon I had accepted it as part of the film and was following the story instead (a sign the film was really working). It's really just a device to facilitate the rest of the plot, anyway, which is all about the characters of the various humans and how they respond to the world in which they live. Langella gives a brilliant performance, capturing the old man's brittle defiance perfectly, and completely selling you on the kind of person he used to be and his delight at reliving former glories. I'm not sure I'm completely sold on Liv Tyler's appearance as the daughter, but everyone else in the movie is also very good. The movie isn't afraid to tackle fairly uncomfortable topics, like the issue of how we should treat our elderly parents, the price of progress, and the effects of senile dementia, and does so seriously and effectively, for the most part. Well – there's a third-act plot twist courtesy of Frank's memory loss that seemed to me to make a fairly big ask of the audience, and a possibly unnecessary one at that, but the film made up for this by making an issue of the difference between Frank's all-too-fragile memory and the robot's indestructible one.

It's always quite clear that Robot & Frank is an indie movie, in both style and concerns, but it's a very accomplished and accessible one with a superb cast. It treats the audience as intelligent adults and has interesting and significant things to say about the world in which we live. It works admirably as a character study, a piece of SF, and a comedy drama. It may not be the most momentous film of the year, but I can't honestly think of a way in which it could easily be substantially improved. I liked it very much.

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