DVD Digest #1: Robot & Frank + Identity Thief + Arbitrage

on Friday, July 19, 2013
DVD Digest is a new column offering a selection of short spoiler-free reviews of recent UK DVD releases // Words: Maxamillian John

This week sees the release of 'Robot & Frank' (★★★★), a touching film about the attempt of an elderly man to recover his life from the grip of dementia. Played by Frank Langella, his pride won't allow him to admit that he's losing his memory, although it is clear to his children, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, who are unable to take care of him.

His son's solution is to buy him a robot, a personal live-in caregiver, an idea his father finds patronising and embarrassing. In gradually accepting his new housemate’s presence and insistence on improving his life, Frank realises that the robot would make a great assistant in a return to his former career as a cat-burglar.

The relationship between Frank, the robot, his children, and a librarian love-interest from Susan Sarandon sustain a thoughtful and emotionally engaging film which is occasionally laid-back but never boring. There are interesting issues being played with throughout the movie, beginning with the assertion of the character of technology as something which enables, rather than defines, the values of a society, and including the extent to which a person's (or robot's) experiences define them. What is the value of those experiences when they aren't remembered?

The imagination of the camerawork fades as the story progresses - the variety in the shots decreasing as establishment gives way to exposition - but it remains concise and clear. The same is true of the sound too. The beginning of the film having less person-to-person interaction, that space is filled with music, which contracts as the story expands. There's a use of Mozart's 'Dies Irae' later though that's so apt it seems to affirm that these contractions of directing and sound design are due to restraint in service of the plot rather than an exhaustion of ideas.

Conversely, Seth Gordon’s scattered and direction-less comedy, 'Identity Thief' (★★), has very few ideas to exhaust. Starring Jason Bateman as a hardworking family man who has life-shattering bills run up in his name by career fraudster Melissa McCarthy, it bounds between juvenile and lazy attempts at humour (including a scene essentially gunging a policeman), and cloying sentimentality.

In bringing McCarthy to justice, Bateman embarks on a mission to bring her back to his home city, thus precipitating a journey that draws on every trope of both mismatched buddy movies and road-trip movies - adding precisely nothing. Entirely superfluous scenes of contrived conflict weakly define characters who are conspicuous by their derivative personalities, and McCarthy's backstory is as unengaging as it is half-hearted.

Robert Patrick makes an appearance as a sadistic skiptracer, for no other reason than to give the film an antagonist and thus a sense of direction. But they don't have the confidence of their convictions, so they also add Génesis Rodríguez, who did a decent turn in 'The Last Stand', and the rapper T.I. as additional antagonists. They aren't even bad in these roles, but it's hard not to resent their presence as a kitchen-sink approach to creating drama.

The musical accompaniment isn't so much a soundtrack as a mix-tape, a collection of smotheringly hip songs that some executive thinks will play well with the kids. The whole thing is at least twenty minutes too long. It feels like a series of terrible sketches based on half-ideas that each drag on forever, tenuously threaded with an indolent excuse for a plot. Quite simply, 'Identity Thief' is a mess.

The only thing 'Identity Thief' shares with 'Arbitrage' (★★★★½) is an opening birthday scene. You might remember me describing Brit Marling as an actress who's never been in a bad movie, and 'Arbitrage' is one of the better ones.

Nicholas Jarecki is a filmmaker of considerable subtlety. He was responsible for 'The Informers', a brilliant film about dissociation which took deserved liberties with the Bret Easton Ellis book, but 'Arbitrage' is his first feature-length narrative movie as both writer and director. It follows an ageing business tycoon, played by Richard Gere in what might be the performance of his career, as he attempts to deal with cascade of potentially ruinous events and save his fortune, family and reputation.

Without giving anything away, he becomes the subject of a criminal investigation led by an admittedly hammy Tim Roth, and simultaneously encounters difficulty selling his company. He's not been thorough enough in covering up huge losses that he's sustained in reckless speculation, and needs to close a deal before anyone finds out.

The financial aspect may not sound particularly exciting, but it's all in service of dismantling the tycoon’s disposition and nature. At its heart, this is a character study, not of the character played by Gere, but of an archetype of post-rationalising magnates and executives, driven by greed but able to contort their conscience and find the most altruistic justifications for the basest drives. Just as 'Margin Call' abstracted an archetype to present a satire and demolition of self-deceiving financial institutions, so 'Arbitrage' presents a satire of the men at the top of those institutions.

Like all genuine tragedies, the inevitability of the end is only clear after the fact, when we can see the whole arc and identify the seeds of Gere’s downfall in his meteoric rise. I hope I don’t sound mad when I say that ‘Arbitrage’ is a classic Greek narrative, and a film exploring the hamartia of boom-time businessmen is an important facet of art’s response to the financial crisis.

Jarecki’s camera emphasises the imagery and posturing of corporate power even as the reality slowly emerges, creating a crescendo of tragic dissonance leading to a spectacular, and again inevitable, climactic final scene. Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling as Gere’s wife and daughter are effortless counterpoints to Gere, and genuinely moving in their confrontation with the resilient selfishness of Gere’s world.

There's some low-hanging fruit this week, although best to avoid the rotten 'Identity Thief'. 'Robot & Frank' and 'Arbitrage' are both blends of symphony and nightmare, manifesting larger questions in personal and affecting dramas. Who knows when we'll get two films this good in a single week again!

Read more of Maxamillian John's reviews here.

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