Sundance 2012: Fourth Report
Posted on Monday January 30, 2012, 00:52 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
With its strangely chipper demeanour and wry view of the near future, Jake Schreier's Robot And Frank plays a little bit like a throwback Disney TV movie, from the days when the studio made oddball curios like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It stars Frank Langella as Frank, a man of retirement age who is starting to lose his marbles, much to his family's dismay. Frank doesn't see what all the fuss is about; his memory may be fading but his instincts are still sharp – when he shoplifts, it's deliberate, not an act of befuddlement – so he is outraged when his son (James Marsden) presents him with an an android careworker. The robot, who never gets a name (and is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), tries to set a daily regime for Frank, but Frank has other ideas. Frank, we soon learn, is a former cat burglar, and in the guileless robot he sees the perfect partner in crime. Together, they plan a series of heists, culminating in a daring raid on the home of local yuppie.
Although it has nothing else in common with Red Lights (see Third Report), there is an extraordinary overlap between the two films, since both deal with the human mind and how it can be manipulated. Langella is simply perfect as Frank, the grizzled ex-con who always believes himself to be one step ahead of the law and his family, leading to some great twists and revelations as we find out, by turn, that sometimes he's right and less often he's wrong. The film's handling of Alzheimer's is certainly unique, but I'm still ambivalent about it, since it brings the story to a disappointingly tidy climax. However, Langella is just great, and there's a lot to be said for a film that allows us (and not just Frank) to invest in a mechanical man with, as it tells us repeatedly, no personality or feelings.
I approached Arbitrage with a degree of caution, since America appears to be incapable of telling stories about the financial crisis without adding layers of heavily inked moral shading. For example, I am still baffled by the rapturous reception afforded the dreadful Margin Call, which presented the traders of 2008 as being somehow like those (literally) poor fishermen in The Perfect Storm. However, director Nicholas Jarecki being the brother of Andrew and Eugene, I knew it wouldn't be a total write-off, and, indeed, it wasn't. Rather than dwelling entirely on rich people's problems, Abitrage is at its best when suggesting that the whole of human existence is subject to arbitration on every level. But even while doing that, yet again, it puts an unconvincing, glossy sheen on the lives of the privileged.
Richard Gere, extremely well-cast, plays Robert Miller, a Manhattan businessman known for his acumen and predictive skills when playing the market. As his 60th birthday looms, he begins to think about retiring and selling the family business, but an untypically disastrous investment has drained the company coffers. To cover the shortfall, Miller has arranged an illegal bridging loan from a friend, but the financiers who are supposed to be taking over are dragging their heels, and Miller's now-impatient friend is demanding his money back. This, of course, is not a good time to be involved in a driving felony, but one duly occurs when Miller falls asleep at the wheel, accidentally killing his annoying French artist mistress (played by Letitia Casta, whose part is cut mercifully short).
What follows ought to be gripping but simply ticks over like a superior airport novel, as Miller ropes in the African-American son of his former chauffeur to help him escape the scene and cover his tracks, adding some much-needed variety to a so-far one-track story. Tim Roth subsequently turns up to throw a spanner in the works, playing the most suspicious yet somehow worst cop in the world, but by this time it's quite hard to know what angle the film is coming from. Personally, I'm a bit tired of moral ambiguity in these kinds of stories, and the film's constant reference to Miller's ongoing dilemma – if he fesses up, the deal will go south, making hundreds of people redundant – gets very tiresome, when, after all, a woman lies dead and her rich lover has deliberately and callously washed his hands of her.
Lay The Favorite (pictured) was, ironically, one of the least lauded films at the festival, but I rather liked it, not least because this is the film that will likely send Rebecca Hall off on the career that Gemma Arterton was pencilled in to have. On Twitter I called it a “bubblegum Grifters”, since it presents a similar band of outsiders in a similar milieu, only this time no one gets hurt and there's a touch more toplessness. DV DeVincentis, writer of Grosse Point Blank (as no one seemed to notice) scripted it, and Stephen Frears directed it, which seems like an odd match and is doubtless the reason that it got the reviews it did.
But I thought it worked. Not only is Hall fantastic as the clueless Beth Raymer – a ditzy girl who not only craves a job with “stability, excitement and glamour” but whose father thinks that her becoming a cocktail waitress is actually a career progression – Lay The Favorite is an above-average Vegas comedy with an unusual, restless structure and some very funny lines. Much of the disdain that fell on this movie may be due to Bruce Willis's light but not exactly prominent performance as Dink, the bookie who inducts Beth into the world of gambling. I think, though, that the film will play better to female audiences, since Hall turns Beth from a clueless cutie into a woman with smarts if not brains, and that transformation alone was enough to make me smile.