THE Sundance seal of approval has been worn less easily in recent years, not so much a marker of quality, but a millstone around the necks of otherwise great films.
2011 Jury Prize winner Like Crazy sank without a trace, despite being one of the best relationship films of the millenium and Steve Coogan’s Hamlet 2, which sold for an eight-figure sum in 2008, grossed roughly half of its rights cost.
So, when you get notice that a movie that shared a win of the Alfred B Sloan Prize, which recognises films which deal with science and technology, is about to hit screens, it is understandable that there would be apprehension.
Especially when you consider that the stars are a 75-year-old character actor and a robot.
Robot & Frank director Jake Schreier manages to lift his film above all expectations.
Schreier, in his directorial debut, manages to keep what could easily turn into a 1980s’ buddy-comedy on a straight track while also making the near-future setting both novel and interesting.
When we meet Frank, he is a retired cat burglar and a near shut-in.
His kids (Tyler and Marsden) are worried about him in a way that guilty offspring are prone to be.
Rather than put their father in fulltime care, Marsden’s Tyler decides that a robot companion is just what his father needs to improve his health.
The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, looks like it could have stepped off the stage at a Japanese tech show and actually feels like a human character.
Much of that is down to Peter Sarsgaard, whose voice work as Robot is warm and empathetic.
Sarsgaard is an excellent actor, one who just doesn’t get enough good roles, but his work here helps create a dynamic with Langella which would otherwise be difficult to capture.
Langella, of course, deserves huge credit for this too.
Here he is in sparkling form, making you rue the fact that an eminently talented screen actor would eschew the medium for the vast majority of his career.
Oscar-nominated in 2008 for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Langella has performed just four live-action roles since.
He has been primarily a stage actor for the majority of his 50-year career and it is apparent that the stage’s gain has been screen’s loss.
Here, with Frank slipping further into dementia, Langella makes him a sympathetic man, albeit one who is planning to steal millions of dollars of jewels.
As his relationship with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) blossoms, Frank shows a more tender side to his personality, while a twist at the end really brings the light feelings to the ground with a heavy bump.
Overall, Schreier deserves credit for keeping big issues (technology, mental deteroration) from dominating what is really a very good story, free of moralising or pontificating.
But, at the end of the day, this is Langella’s film and he steals it thoroughly. Pardon the pun.