a review of Robot & Frank and Total Recall

By Jordan Minter

Surprisingly Excellent
It just goes to show you, what a focused vision, tight script and excellent actors can accomplish. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing old either. But it seems to be a concept that Hollywood refuses to understand. Take a simple and honest script, with few locations, a solid premise and let actors act. There’s a good chance you’ll catch something amazing, which is what film does best. Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State, Juno, Sideways, The Descendants and Hesher all prove this point and now Robot & Frank joins them as a shining example of how a modest approach to production can result in movies of sharp insight and subtle beauties. At first released on only two screens and with an advertising budget that wouldn’t feed a family of fleas, Robot & Frank has found its success by way of critical praise and enthusiastic word-of-mouth. Strangely, when awards season comes around, Hollywood very well may reward exactly what it’s so reluctant to produce and promote.

The premise is simple. Set in the near future a somewhat retired thief, Frank (Frank Langella) has become a little more than forgetful in his old age. So his son Hunter (James Marsden) long exasperated by his father’s unruliness, purchases a caretaker robot to live with Frank. Robot (Peter Sarsgaard’s lovely voice) is tasked with everything a human caretaker would, including cleaning, cooking and setting a schedule for Frank to live by. Frank, with his diet of children’s cereal, late night burglaries and general untidiness, is aggressively reluctant to cooperate with Robot. When Robot suggests, “Today, we’re going to start a garden,” Frank responds with a simple, “fuck this shit.” The tension between this extremely odd couple continues until Frank realizes that his new companion is only programmed as a caregiver and has no sense of morals whatsoever, especially when it comes to Frank’s favorite pastime of thievery. When Frank finally realizes Robot’s willingness to shoplift with him, Frank says, “You’re starting to grow on me” and Robot responds, “Thank you Frank, it’s time for your enema.”

A kind of love
What makes Robot & Frank more than just an interesting take on the buddy caper formula is the stories that wend their way through the film—the strained relationship between Frank and his son Hunter, his always on the move daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) and a possible romance with a Librarian (Susan Sarandon). They give a texture and realism to the main drama that raises the film’s generic qualities to the level of a meditation on life and love and technology and the possibility of coming to a new set of terms about what it means to come alive at the end of one’s life. Langella’s performance is everything that you could hope for and he gives clear and firm meaning to these elusive states of being.

Robot & Frank is a sci-fi movie for people who don’t like sci-fi movies. Its use of only a single sci-fi element against the backdrop of an otherwise ordinary world has become quite a popular trope in Hollywood movies. Jean-Luc Godard set the template in 1965 with Alphaville, but it is really the novels and short stories of Phillip K. Dick that has allowed for the proliferation of this new kind of futuristic realism. Bladerunner, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau all somewhat adhere to this model. The one mammoth exception is the Arnold Schwarzenegger Total Recall and now strangely enough and twenty years later the same is true for this remake, reboot, rewind, it’s hard to tell what it is, Total Recall starring Colin Ferrell.

This is an everyman
Well, first and foremost Total Recall is an everyman story and like all everyman stories our everyman, Douglass Quaid (Colin Ferrell), is a man who is dissatisfied with his life. Haunted by a recurring dream, he grows restless and yearns for a life that matters or at least one of greater significance than being a factory worker with no possibilities or hopes. He is fundamentally a man without dreams who is haunted by dreams. The world in which he lives was destroyed by the use of chemical weapons and now there are only two places left on earth: the “United Federation of Britain”, where the upper classes live, and the “Colony”, hilariously set in Australia, where the lower classes live. Each day workers from the “Colony” ride a fourteen minute massive super elevator, “the fall,” through the earths core to their low paying factory jobs in the “U.F.B.” Add in a guerrilla insurgency and this new Total Recall has some pretty charged ideas. And add even some even more dazzling visual effects and you might wonder how a great premise coupled with astounding technical achievements somehow all went so terribly wrong.

Perhaps what I’ve failed to mention holds the key to the problem and it is as simple as acting or in this case, the chance to act. And there’s no doubt that I was still under the influence of Frank Langella’s brilliance, but there were so many incredibly ridiculous, not complex, not confusing, but ridiculous, back and forth plot twists and incredibly complex and visually stimulating chase scenes that the actors had no time to act. Colin Farrell does his best to play a man who wants a new future, then upon realizing he doesn’t actually know his own past, wants to know the truth of his own past, then, with some helpful guidance realizes that perhaps the best way is to stay merely in the present. It’s a complex theme in a movie with no time for complexity.

One should say that Kate Beckinsale in the role of Quaid’s fake wife, Lori, a spy hired to kill him, is at some sort of Olympic level peak of athleticism and makes Milla Jovovich seem stiff and aged. But besides running, flipping, and beating the shit out of Collin Farrell, she barely has any actual dialogue or scenes of any substance. With plot twists, too many to get into, and chase scenes too long to explain, one can only hope that an extended cut becomes available when the film reaches Blu-ray. Somewhere in Total Recall (2012) there’s an epic and you can sense the director Len Wiseman striving for that—if only he had another hour and a half for some quiet scenes. But without an extended cut we’re left with only this: a movie whose visuals approximate the fever pop fantasies of Inception, Fifth Element and Blade Runner. Sometimes that’s worth the price of admission, but acting would be nice, too.

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