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Robot & Frank & Celeste & Jesse Forever?

September 1, 2012

Down-to-earth relationships are the hardest things to depict on film—harder than the most outlandish space battle. You can’t use F/X to create intangible chemistry or the genuine connection that evolves over a much longer period of time than your average feature film. So filmmakers use shortcuts; rom-com clichés cribbed from Nora Ephron films or alien-friendship tropes stolen from Spielberg. A pair of new films attempt to capture the bond between two very different sets of characters—a divorcing couple who want to remain friends in Celeste & Jesse Forever and a catburglar in mental decline who’s assigned a health-care automaton in Robot & Frank. Even though the latter is the less “realistic” film, it’s a more human, humane film than the irritatingly glib Celeste & Jesse Forever.

Relationships between moviegoers and movies are funny things, too. I watched Robot & Frank and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, then snuck into Celeste & Jesse Forever. As Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg’s shallow, self-involved characters worked my nerves with their unfunny inside jokes and childish behavior, my mind kept going back to Robot & Frank—and then my body did. I snuck back into Robot & Frank and watched it again, and now I’m convinced it’s a nearly flawless movie.

Langella—who proved with his acid-tipped recent memoir Dropped Names that he hasn’t forgotten a single celebrity who ever crossed his path (or crossed him)—subtly evokes the fading intellect of his ex-convict character, who’s estranged from his children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler, both letter-perfect). He underplays a lovely romantic subplot with Susan Sarandon as the local librarian with a past bond he may or may not have forgotten. But it’s Frank’s connection with his robot (warmly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) that reboots the burglar’s brain—and his heart. Director Jake Schreier works from a clever script by Christopher D. Ford and atmospherically scores it with his former band Francis and the Lights. While he doesn’t hit a single false or sentimental note, he quietly brings the film to a strangely moving conclusion.

Almost nothing rings true about Celeste & Jesse, however. This is what my old pal Arnold Wayne Jones recently reminded me Roger Ebert calls “a moron movie”: It wouldn’t exist if everyone in it weren’t a moron. Cowriter Rashida Jones (who has no range—she seems to be playing the same character here she does on the overrated Parks & Recreation or in the underrated-except-for-her I Love You, Man) goes through the motions as Celeste, who inexplicably divorces her best friend Jesse, then dares to get jealous when he moves on and impregnates another woman. We have no idea why she cares, since Samberg has yet to display the ability to portray a character with more depth than an SNL sketch artist. The rest of the cast—the destined-to-remain-star-adjacent Emma Roberts as a pouty pop tart, Elijah Wood as a token gay pal, NCIS: LA‘s shaggy Eric Christian Olsen and the unfortunately omnipresent Ari Graynor as a couple whose wedding allows Jones to deliver a drunken toast that’s plays like a bad dress rehearsal for Bridesmaids—don’t fare any better.

In one of C&J’s many phony moments, Roberts’ character suddenly tells Jones that she assumes she’s smarter than everyone else before she even knows them, and that’s her own “dark prison.” I felt trapped in a dark prison—filled with irksome idiots—while I was watching C&J, which is why I made a jail break and escaped back to the deeply haunting world of Robot & Frank. It’s like A.I. if Stanley Kubrick had directed it himself instead of turning it over to Spielberg; its intelligence is anything but artifical.

Did you find signs of intelligent life in Robot & Frank or Celeste & Jesse? Comment!

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