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

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war