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'Robot & Frank' review: Why we care

Actor Frank Langella attends the 66th Annual Tony

Actor Frank Langella attends the 66th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre in New York City. (June 10, 2012) Credit: Getty Mike Coppola

Who says sci-fi has to involve spaceships, explosions and million-dollar effects? Two warm performances anchor "Robot & Frank," an endearing movie about a human and his mechanical new buddy. One comes from Frank Langella as an aging jewel thief, the other from Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of Frank's robot-caregiver. Together, they accomplish what expensive but hollow spectacles like "John Carter" and "Total Recall" couldn't: They make you care.

Langella is Frank, a former "second-story man" living alone in upstate New York, where his mind is short-circuiting even as his instincts for burglary remain hard-wired. To keep an eye on the old man, Frank's legitimately successful son, Hunter (James Marsden), buys the VCG-60L: a walking, talking home aide that never tires of washing dishes and monitoring blood pressure. Frank, proud and stubborn, is initially horrified, until he realizes this contraption may have other uses.

Sci-fi fans will recognize the building blocks: Sarsgaard channels the passive, amiable voice of Douglas Rain's HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- though he's all goodwill -- while Frank's irrational feelings for a humanoid object recall "The Lonely," one of the better episodes of "The Twilight Zone." But "Robot & Frank" works precisely because of its vintage version of sci-fi. "I know you don't like to hear this, Frank, but I'm not a person," it says at a critical moment. We've grown so attached to the little guy that we don't like to hear it, either.

Director Jake Schreier and writer C.D. Ford, both making their feature-film debuts, have created a real gem here, mixing stock characters (Jeremy Sisto plays a nosy police detective) with cleverly drawn ones (Susan Sarandon is the local librarian who keeps catching Frank's eye). "Robot & Frank" makes a good companion piece to "Safety Not Guaranteed," another recent, low-budget charmer that used sci-fi conceits to illuminate a human story, not the other way around. Is there a trend happening here? Let's hope so.

PLOT In the near future, an aging jewel thief gets an unlikely new partner. RATING PG-13 (language)

CAST Frank Langella, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon.


PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington; Malverne Cinema; and Manhasset Cinemas

BOTTOM LINE Warm performances and low-tech effects merge nicely in this charming sci-fi gem.

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