Robot & Frank: An Endearing Showcase for Langella’s Star Turn

Veteran actor Frank Langella exudes power and vulnerability in this Hospice drama that morphs into a warm and delicate buddy-heist comedy

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Both are named Frank, but it’s a cinch to tell the actor Frank Langella from the character he plays in Robot & Frank. Set in the near future, this ingratiating indie comedy has at its center a man who has lost large patches of his past. Frank — a gentleman felon of about 70, living reclusively in Cold Spring, N.Y. — is sliding toward dementia. His ex-wife has faded into a distant blur; he forgets that his favorite local restaurant has closed; he thinks his son, nearing 40, is still an undergrad at Princeton. A solo cat burglar for much of his career, and then imprisoned, Frank is used to working and living alone. But with his memory in deep recession, he needs help.

There’s Frank, and then there’s Langella, who at 74 has done it all and is doing fine. A half-century in theater brought him major roles in plays by Albee, Strindberg, Turgenev and Noel Coward, and a couple of Tony Awards for his mantel. His voluptuous machismo encased in doe-like features — a curious mixture of Brando and Bambi — Langella was a natural for sensual movie villains. He played demon lovers in Diary of a Mad Housewife, as Dracula (repeating his stage triumph) and, in the 1997 Lolita, that master gamesman and cocksman Clare Quilty. In Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate he was the Devil’s most devoted disciple, and in the play and movie Frost/Nixon he tenanted another tormented soul: that of the 37th President of the United States. Every few years Langella returns to Broadway — as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons or as the ruthless tycoon in Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy — to demonstrate the old-fashioned glory that star quality yoked to surpassing craft can achieve.

(READ: Richard Zoglin on Frank Langella in A Man for All Seasons)

And unlike his character in Robot & Frank, Langella remembers everything and everyone. His memoir Dropped Names, published earlier this year, comprises 65 sketches of “famous men and women as I knew them.” Some he knew biblically; the book bubbles with the sexual attentions lavished on him by showbiz goddesses of a certain age: Rita Hayworth, Dolores del Rio, Yvonne De Carlo, Dinah Shore, Elizabeth Taylor. He recalls a breathy “Hi” from Marilyn Monroe when he was 15; his lifelong ardor for her is nearly as acute as his admiration for Robert Mitchum and Ida Lupino, his loathing for Method guru Lee Strasberg (“a cruel and rather ridiculous demigod who ran a highly profitable racket”). On the evidence of Dropped Names — stocked with enough celebrity gossip to make it the perfect gift for all your gay friends — Langella can love and hate with the same ruthless passion. He makes readers squirm with guilty delight, pleased that their foibles never came under his laserlike gaze.

In his new movie, Langella finds excellent employment for that unmanning stare. It seems to cauterize his morning cereal, when Frank realizes he’s poured sour milk on it, and on the lady in a tchotchkes store who sees him palming a soap figurine of a Pomeranian. (Is that incipient Alzheimer’s for the 70-something second-story man, or force of habit?) On a video call with his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), Frank’s stare practically shorts the connection. He’s no more sympathetic to his son Hunter (James Marsden), who drives five hours to see him each weekend — apparently the geniuses of the future haven’t resolved traffic delays. When Hunter recommends an in-house robot as a caregiver, Frank categorically refuses.

(READ: Corliss on Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon)

The VGC-60S robot (performed by Rachael Ma and voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) has a strong personality of its own. Instructed to improve Frank’s health through nutrition and exercise, it takes the old man on vigorous walks when it’s not cracking wise deadpan-style. “Time for your enema,” it says, as if its brain had been set to Droll. On their visit to the local library, Frank flirts with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) behind the counter; he may have forgotten his wife, but a lovely lady can still stir his courtship reflexes. When Jennifer’s new boss Jake (Jeremy Strong) announces his plans to junk all the books and make the library digital, Frank deciders to take his criminal expertise out of retirement for one last heist.

Any viewer can anticipate that Frank’s relationship with the robot will mellow from hostility (“That thing is gonna murder me in my sleep”) to exasperation (“What am I doin’? I’m talkin’ to an appliance!”) to dependency (“I need him — he’s my friend”), and that the old cat burglar will find uses for the robot’s skills in planning that final caper. Avoiding indie clichés of simmering angst and climactic eruption, played to a plangent piano score, director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford instead embrace the more venerable, and reliable, clichés of Hollywood. The film boasts the rhythms of a Vietnam-era comedy like The Graduate — ending scenes with mild visual or spoken zingers — and a lush soundtrack, by Francis Farewell Starlite (aka Francis and the Lights, for whom Schreier has directed music videos), that includes a long taste of Mozart’s Requiem Mass.

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The movie has the assured, comforting touch of an adroit, mid-career work from a director with nothing left to prove. In fact, it’s a debut feature from two NYU Film School grads. A low-budget film with mainstream impulses, and aimed straight at the educated moviegoer of a certain age, Robot & Frank must have sent a thrill of anachronism through the audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There, the movie won an Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, named after the longtime President of General Motors, who made the cover of TIME in 1926. Can’t get more retro than that. What the new lord of the library says to Frank — “You’re so square, you’re practically avant-garde” — is true of the movie as well. What I’m saying is that I resisted the film but it won me over, a little more than I care to admit.

Chalk that up to the main performances. Not so much Marsden, who must play the starchy authority figure to his own dad; and certainly not Tyler, who, when agitated, compulsively runs her fingers through her long locks, as if acting were hair care. But Sarandon, who broke into movies (with Joe) the same year Langella did, contributes another portrait of erotic maturity — a woman any man could fall in love with, at any time of his life. And the Ma-Sarsgaard team invests the robot with warmth and dignity, a crucial component for what is, at heart, a buddy picture.

(READ: Corliss on the young Liv Tyler by subscribing to TIME)

And, mainly, a Langella picture. Unlike Frank, who wants to be alone and is saddled with a computerized companion, Langella is basically working in a void, searching for emotional feedback. He had to interact with a silent woman in a robot suit and a male voice that may have been dubbed in later. Whatever the circumstances, it must have been a lonely job and a major challenge: turning a one-man show into a story of human-automaton friendship. A feat of power, nuance and daredevil craft, Langella’s performance is a reminder that giants still fill the stage, and the screen.