"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.