"SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue"
By Leah Rozen
The veteran actor takes on aging, dementia and a droid butler in a new dystopian comedy
Frank Langella isn’t afraid to act his age.
The 74-year-old actor plays a gentleman of advancing years in "Robot & Frank," an endearing new comedy that opened in New York last weekend and will be playing to wider audiences across the country starting Friday. (To see when the film is coming to your town, click here.)
The movie is set in the not very distant future, when robot helpers along the lines of Rosie in "The Jetsons" or R2-D2 in "Star Wars" have become commonplace.
Langella’s character, also named Frank, is a retired cat burglar who spent time in jail and now lives alone in a small town not too far from New York. He keeps himself amused by flirting with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) and shoplifting inexpensive knickknacks from a gift store.
Frank suffers from the beginnings of dementia, and his two adult children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) have opposing views of whether he needs a companion and caretaker, but his son prevails. Enter the robot (deftly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), which will cook for Frank and make sure he takes his pills, exercises, wears clean clothing, etc. While initially reluctant to have the robot around, Frank warms up to the little metallic guy -- and transforms him into a partner in crime.
Essentially, "Robot & Frank" is a caper film doing double duty as a character study, thanks to Langella. He brings gravitas to his role. There may be a twinkle in Frank’s eye when he pulls a fast one on a shopkeeper or outfoxes his overbearing daughter, but Langella’s Frank is no cutesy-poo, crusty codger of the type so often found in comedies featuring older characters. His Frank is clearly a guy who lived a real life and who has regrets, but he’s going to make the most of the time he has left, despite the poignancy and pain of fading memory.
Earlier this summer, I conducted a Q&A session with Langella at the Nantucket Film Festival after a screening of "Robot & Frank." Before we went on stage, I asked if there were any topics that he wanted to avoid. "Ask whatever you want," he said. "That makes it more fun -- I can handle it."
Indeed he could. Langella, looking tanned and fit in a white linen shirt, is an articulate charmer. (He proves just how charming in "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them," his engaging recent memoir, in which he recalls his encounters, a number of them sexual, over the years with various notables.)
On stage in Nantucket, he said he accepted the role in "Robot & Frank" because it offered him a chance to confront aging and dementia. "I know what may be ahead and I thought, 'Better to face it and explore it,'" he said.
Over the course of four decades, Langella has grown old on screen before us. After finding success as a stage star, he began his movie career as a matinee idol, playing a bedroom-eyed Lothario in his breakout role in 1970’s "Diary of a Mad Housewife," and a hunky Dracula both on Broadway and in a 1979 movie.
As middle age caught up with him, Langella began taking on character roles, often turning up as a calculating hissable villain in films like "Dave" (1993) and "Cutthroat Island" (1995). More recently, he won a Tony award for brilliantly playing Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" on Broadway and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor when he reprised the role on screen in 2008. And lately he really dug deep into challenging roles in indie films such as "Starting Out in the Evening" (2007) and "All Good Things" (2010).
Asked about aging and vanity during the Q&A, Langella said that, unlike many older stars desperate to preserve their looks, he has never gone under the plastic surgeon’s knife. In many ways, aging has freed him, he said, from the vanity of his younger days and the energy and time spent worrying about and maintaining his looks.
Now he’s free to simply concentrate on acting. "Though I have to admit," he wryly added, "that occasionally, when I see myself on screen in this movie, I think I should ask for the name of a good doctor."
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
"I remember when I was very young, my family calling me to the phone, excited that we were making a 'long distance' call from our home in New Jersey, all the way to Chicago! I listened to the person on the other end, who sounded like they were at the end of a long tunnel. What a miracle!" - Wayndom, 64 (Image via Flickr, Si Levitas)
"The first computer I used was a remote terminal that would read the punch cards we fed it, sent the data 200 miles to a mainframe where the data was run and the results were returned, several hours later. The terminal, as primitive as it was occupied an entire classroom." - Slowshot, 59 (Image via Flickr, Marcin Wichary)
"In the mid-60s (my early teens) I was the only person I knew who owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder... and I owned it expressly to record TV show's audio off the air. I still have the recordings actually -- the first Star Trek episodes, The Prisoner episodes... and in 1967 portable audio cassette recorders became available." - Chuxarino, 59 (Image via Flickr, Carbon Arc)
"The first video game I ever played was Pong." - SOmuch2learn, 71 (Image via Flickr, Jimmah82)
"I built my first 'computer' as a science fair project in 1962. It was just a register made from transistor flip-flops, a rotary phone dial for input, and incandescent bulbs for display. I wrote my first program on punched paper tape on a teletype machine connected via 300 bps modem to a timeshare computer. It was in fortran, contained an infinite loop and timed out the CPU at 3 mins. That bug cost me $50, minimum wage was around $1 then." - Anonanon1313, 63 (Image via Flickr, Providence Public Library)
"I remember our first little black-and-white TV, and our first color set several years later, and how much tweaking you had to do to get even crappy green faced images." - Anonanon1313, 63 (Image via Flickr, Jacob Whittaker)
"I remember my first cassette player. It had a built-in radio. I taped the Beatles first hits. I remember 8-track car tape decks. I remember the first Walkman (cassette), I bought it in an appliance store. I remember the first CD player, buying it and my first CDs ($17!), and soon after boxing up my collection of over 1,000 LPs and hundreds of cassettes, where they still sit." - Anonanon1313, 63 (Image via Flickr, edvvc)
"Technology fascinates me. I used PCs for years & now am finding my way around a MacBook Pro. When VCRs came out, I was first in line. Watching movies at home -- unbelievable -- as was using a phone without being limited by the length of the cord. Now I have an iPhone which is really a mini-computer. Love the Internet and trying new apps. I'm excited to see what's next." - SOmuch2learn, 71 (Photo credit: Getty)
"We had two TV stations, on a black-and-white TV, but there was always something to watch. Today we have over 100 channels (most in HD), but the same programs that I watched as a kid, 'I Love Lucy,' 'Leave It to Beaver,' 'Andy Griffith,' etc. are still being re-run endlessly, while people complain that there is nothing on worth watching." - Slowshot, 59 (Image via Flickr, Jonas Merian)
"In school, educational films and documentaries came on reels of 16 mm film that ran 15 minutes. Today you get high def blu-rays that run four hours on a 5 1/4" disk." - Slowshot, 59 (Image via Flickr, Salvagenation)
"My first introductory computer class about 35 years ago used punch cards for very remedial database programming exercises. It was tedious as all get out, but it gave me a huge foresight into an understanding of the power of data and how to harness that power and manage it to your benefit. A substantial portion of my current job still involves database administration." - Reg-o-matic, 57 (Image via Flickr, Marcin Wichary)
"In the late 50s/early 60s stereo recordings and phonographs were just becoming popular. A high quality vinyl record had a max of 45 minutes of music on a double-sided 12" disk. Today you can get 6 hours of music on a thumb drive." - Slowshot, 59 (Photo credit: AP)
"Biggest technology wonders in my 52 years, definitely communications. Work has changed dramatically... I started as a medical receptionist and learned an antique, handwritten system for keeping track of the money (in 1979), and the last system I learned was a completely comprehensive computer system that kept track of everything, and I mean EVERYTHING." - MeliMagick, 52