Reviewed: Broken and Robot & Frank

Too Close for comfort.

Broken (15); Robot & Frank (12A)
dir: Rufus Norris; dir: Jake Schreier

Hard-bitten residents of Brookside Close or Albert Square would sell up in no time after a weekend in the cul-de-sac at the centre of the British drama Broken. From the moment 11- year-old Skunk (Eloise Laurence) witnesses one of her neighbours being walloped by another while in the middle of washing his car, the misfortune does not abate.

At least a soap opera has the luxury of spreading its quota of sensationalism over many years. Concertinaed into a time span of mere days and distributed among only three households, the litany of suffering in Broken can appear hysterical. Instances of teenage pregnancy, GBH and murder may give a kick to the interlinking stories but stubborn pessimism alone cannot render the film any more authentic than the fluffiest Richard Curtis romcom.

I don’t know whether David Cameron’s opportunistic sound bite about “broken Britain” inspired Daniel Clay, who wrote the novel on which Brokenis based, but its disapproving tang lingers over the portrayal of the Oswalds, one of the film’s three families. The demands of raising alone a trio of feisty daughters has transformed parenting for Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) into a kind of contact sport: when he isn’t seizing erroneously on hints that one of his girls has been abused, he is clutching his offspring in a group hug that’s more rugby scrum than embrace.

Next door live the Buckleys (Denis Lawson and Clare Burt) and their adult son, Rick (Robert Emms), who suffers from an unspecified mental illness that in plot terms has a price beyond rubies.

Rick can be used by the movie as a symbol of childlike innocence but his disability also makes him conveniently unpredictable when proceedings need to be nudged toward the tragic. Who needs specifics about his condition when he is such a boon to the plot’s volatility levels?

It is behind the middle-class Cunningham family –which includes Skunk and her solicitor father, Archie (Tim Roth) – that the filmmakers throw the weight of their sympathies. The relationship between Skunk and Archie is delicately played by Roth and the emphatic newcomer Laurence, on whom the director Rufus Norris lavishes enchanted close-ups. How much braver if the superficially brutish Oswalds had been the recipients of this directorial favouritism, rather than the sensitive family that none of us would mind living next to.

But then Broken takes the easy way out at every opportunity. The fussy, over-composed shots scream artiness; a semaphore score, all plaintive pianos and ambient echoes, steers every scene.

The film makes a meal out of some routine chronological disruptions that have been done more skilfully by Gus Van Sant (in Elephant and Last Days) or Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel). Norris is the sort of director who puts his stamp ostentatiously on every shot, even if it means stomping the life out of the film in the process.

Robot & Frank, on the other hand, is a tonic of a film: it’s all understatement. The whimsical but whip-smart tone suggests a liveaction version of a Pixar movie. Indeed, the story plays like a hybrid of Up and Wall-E. Frank (Frank Langella), is an ageing former jailbird losing his memory and his grip on the modern world. The local library is being digitised and skinny one-person mini-cars zip along the country roads; now his son Hunter (James Marsden) has bought him a robot butler that Frank is convinced will murder him in his sleep.

This being the territory of the buddy movie, rather than techno-horror, it’s no surprise that Frank develops some respect for his domestic droid, which has a primitive, retro-futurist look: black visor, Star Wars stormtrooper bodywork, hands poised in anticipation of its next task. (His cooing voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard and sounds like HAL 9000’s kid brother.)

The parity between the two characters is nicely drawn, with the crisp whiteness of Frank’s hair and billowy shirt echoed in his nameless sidekick’s ensemble. It is the discovery that the robot is capable of lying, or at least creative deception, which really piques Frank’s interest.

And while the project he devises for the pair of them – a neighbourhood jewel heist – is enjoyably playful, it is only the catalyst for the film’s philosophical enquiries about the importance of memories, ethics and imagination in defining identity.

“Robot” is more than the help; he’s a mirror for Frank’s tentative sense of self. No wonder Frank can’t bear it when this new best friend admits: “I know I’m not alive – I’m a robot,” or when he exhorts him to wipe his memory files to remove any evidence of the heist. It’s too near the knuckle, too close to the motherboard.

The joys of Robot & Frank are numerous. They include the uniformly unforced performances: Langella is both bear-like and elegant, and there is tender work from Susan Sarandon as a gentle, near-obsolete librarian. The visual style is equally subtle, relying for its charm on simple incongruities: the robot watering serenely among the tomato plants or donning a cloak during a nocturnal burglary so that its armour doesn’t gleam in the moonlight.

The plotting isn’t perfect; for all the technological advances, the police appear to have forsaken old-fashioned fingerprinting. But the elegiac mood ranges over pertinent concerns for the present and the future, as well as the trepidation of those who fear they may get lost somewhere in between.

Frank Langella stars in "Robot & Frank" - a hybrid of "Up" and "Wall-E".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories