In Robot & Frank, a worried son presents his father with a robot designed to help him deal with the vicissitudes of life – from housekeeping to fighting Alzheimer’s. It’s a thoughtful, engaging and uniquely delightful film.
When we meet Frank (Frank Langella), he’s living alone in a big house and both it and he are a mess. Stuff is piled up on the stairs and in every room, and Frank forgets things like checking the milk before he puts it on his cereal. He is one sad and lonely guy.
Then his son, Hunter (James Marsden), brings him a robot companion that has been programmed to help Frank maintain his physical and mental health. The robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) cleans up the house, shops for groceries and gets Frank eating properly. Frank hates every minute of it – until he discovers his new companion’s programming doesn’t include prohibitions from lying, or stealing in a wonderful scene that finds it stealing an item that Frank was trying to shoplift from an independent soap and candle shop that moved into the spot that used to house his favorite café.
‘You’re beginning to grow on me,’ says Frank.
At this point, we learn that Frank was a semi-successful cat burglar back in the day as he trains the robot how pick locks. This ties into a caper involving the local library, which is being re-imagined for the modern audience, which means the books are being digitized and removed (except for a couple of valuable editions including Don Quixote)
The caper comes about because Frank has been getting to know the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), and between his affection for her and his loathing of what’s being done to librarian – not to mention the supercilious twit (Jeremy Strong) who is the mastermind of the changes – he’s decided to take one of the valuable books to give her.
Written by Christopher D. Ford (the TV movies The Fuzz and The Scariest Show on Television) and directed by Jake Schreier in his feature film debut, Robot & Frank is a film that requires its audience to think a bit and be open to a range of emotions.
Despite its contention that ‘I know that I am not alive,’ the robot (who is never given a name) and Frank slowly becomes friends. As they grow closer, Frank takes delight in teaching his new pal how to pull off a heist – from casing a target, to evading alarms systems, to safecracking. As his plans move from theoretical to actual, Frank – and the audience – begin to treat the robot, with its featureless face as a person. Even cooler, through clever lighting and movement, we can even begin to understand what the robot is thinking.
Of course there obstacles – Frank’s globetrotting, activist daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), comes home to save her father from the abuse of slave robotic labor until Frank has to plead with her to turn it back on. When she insists on a good reason for doing so, he finally has to face a completely unexpected truth, ‘He’s my friend!’
There are further twists that arise both unexpectedly and naturally throughout – some humorous, some almost tragically poignant. The nature identity and memory is a strong theme here, with the robot proving itself to be something more than a mere machine by insisting on making a sacrifice that is almost unbearably painful to Frank all the while insisting that it’s not alive – and therefore not a person.
Robot and Frank is a showcase for Langella, and to a lesser extent, Sarandon, and they give sterling performances. It would be a shame if Langella wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his work here – he gives Frank so much joy and pain and fear, without ever going over the top; without ever letting us see him acting.
The fear behind Frank’s eyes when he forgets something he should know cold; when he lights up around Jennifer – and when he realizes that his robot companion is something special – are so clearly communicated – so raw and real – that Langella never has to vocalize them.
As a counterpoint, Strong only has to be a supercilious twit, a one-note performance, but he gives his character a slick oiliness that makes it easy to root against him – especially when he attempts to browbeat the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto) into arresting Frank.
Sarsgaard gives the robot a beautifully neutral tone that, along with its featureless face, should make the robot in cipher – and yet, just the opposite is true. Part of that has to be the intelligence of the script, but it also requires a specific performance and superb technical work.
Schreier directs with a decidedly deft touch. This is a character study that is never boring and almost never predictable – and when does something you expect, it them goes off into completely different territory. Schreier’s pacing is deliberate because Frank is deliberate – one gets the impression that despite having gone to prison a few times, he got away scot free many more times than he was caught because he was thoughtful, precise and careful.
Robot & Frank is a thoughtful, precise and wonderful film. It makes you root for a retired cat burglar, a robot and a librarian. Gotta love that.
Final Grade: A+
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films and Stage 6 Films