If box office returns were the sole measurement of quality, then Seth McFarlane’s foul-mouthed stuffed bear in “Ted” is the summer’s reigning mascot. Truth be told, however, “Ted” suffers from the same loose comedic randomness that has restricted McFarlane’s television work from gaining traction beyond a sizable army of fans. The foul-mouthed stuffed bear delivers oodles of humor largely based around the dissonance between his cute appearance and unruly behavior (the bear does coke, the bear screws women, and so on). But when it comes his longstanding relationship with lifetime pal John (Mark Wahlberg), the requisite chemistry rings hollow under a steaming pile of jokes. Ted may have plenty of energy, but he lacks both purpose and soul.
That’s less of a problem for the automated half of the buddy movie equation in “Robot and Frank,” a delicate, contained dramedy hitting theaters this week. With an understated turn by Frank Langella at its center, “Robot and Frank” pits the actor against a mechanical counterpoint who has no name. As Frank, Langella plays a crabby ex-thief wasting away his senior years in a near future that looks much like the present. Living alone in Cold Springs, New York, the man meets his match when his grown son (James Marsden) buys his dad a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to care for his every need. While initially reticent to accept the pushy machine into his life, Frank eventually realizes that the robot’s amoral outlook makes it the ultimate accomplice in his intention of pulling off one final heist. Through a twisted burst of inspiration, Frank rediscovers his vitality.
Directed by newcomer Jake Schreier from a screenplay by Christopher D. Ford, “Robot and Frank” allows its understated wit to emerge organically from well-calibrated performances and the resulting pathos. Despite the ostensibly absurd set-up, the filmmakers play it straight, so that Frank’s initial resistance to the robot’s intrusion in his secluded life is no less credible than if the old man were grappling with a pushy roommate.
“Robot and Frank” succeeds where “Ted” fails because, unlike McFarlane, Schreier and Ford render the relationship between the human character and the robot in largely credible terms. While there’s never a point in time in which the movie hints that the robot has developed bona fide feelings toward Frank, his own affection for the robot is entirely believable. The ultimate cinematic actor, Langella’s facial expressions often tell the story in close-up, and with “Robot and Frank” they display a jaded man rediscovering his passion. With his subjectivity the star of the show, once Frank starts to see the robot as his only friend, so can we.
In “Ted,” the notion of a talking bear was a one-line joke told a few dozen ways over the course of an otherwise familiar plot. By contrast, “Robot and Frank” elevates the offbeat nature of its scenario by using it to explore the tension between aging consumers and technological progress in heartfelt terms. The premise is silly, but the chemistry runs deep.
Langella and his sleek robot friend make such an enjoyable onscreen pair that the other actors, including Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter and Susan Sarandon as the local librarian he routinely tries to romance, can’t keep pace. Whenever “Robot and Frank” becomes a family drama about a senile man and his anxious offspring, it loses track of its fundamental appeal. Fortunately, these characters take a backseat to Frank’s increasing excitement over his ability to steal from Jake (Jeremy Strong), the slick digital entrepreneur in charge of shutting down the Sarandon character’s library, and ostensibly get his groove back in the process.
As Frank’s grip on reality gradually lessens, the sense of excitement and danger associated with what he thinks he can use his new toy to do accurately encapsulates a distinctly 21st century relationship between man and machine. That’s more of a meaningful twist than this genre usually allows. One could argue that the teddy bear in “Ted” symbolizes the lingering juvenilia that secretly chases everyone into adulthood. But that deduction is less obvious in the work itself. “Robot and Frank” makes its universal relevance clear: In an age of smart phones, we’re all a walking buddy movie waiting to happen.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Samuel Goldwyn and Stage 6 Films release “Robot and Frank” in several cities on Friday. Acclaim for Langella and buzz for the film that started at Sundance should help it through a solid opening weekend performance, although its longterm prospects are dicey.