Title: Robot & Frank
Directed By: Jake Schreier
Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong
A sign of an effective and touching movie? The viewer wants to be part of that world. Not only will “Robot & Frank” leave you wishing you could have a friendly robot buddy just like Frank’s, but you’ll also leave feeling as though you’ve truly experienced a part of a person’s life, and a part that’s well worth experiencing at that.
In the near future, there’s no need for in-home nursing; caretaker robots assume the responsibility of ensuring elderly clients live healthy and happy day-to-day lives. When Hunter (James Marsden) comes to the conclusion that his father Frank’s (Frank Langella) memory loss has left him unable to care for himself, Hunter buys him a robot. Frank’s furious at first, but soon comes to learn the robot has a lot to offer – maintaining a clean home, cooking tasty and nutritious meals, friendship, and picking locks.
In his younger years, Frank was a jewel thief and longs to relive his glory days. When he figures out that he’s able to manipulate the robot into doing anything as long he can make a case that it’s beneficial to his health, he looks at the robot not only as a caretaker, but a friend and partner in crime.
Let’s call it the Wall-E effect. Robot of “Robot & Frank” is just so lovable. His design is quite simple so it totally comes down to his personality. Robot follows a program with restrictions, but enough leeway to allow him to come across as humanistic and as a being with feelings. One of the most poignant parts of “Robot & Frank” is that, just like Frank, the audience is convinced that Robot is as close to a true friend as possible so when we’re reminded that Robot doesn’t have feelings and that his memory can be erased, it’s rather heartbreaking.
We’ve got a similar dichotomy with Frank, too. One minute you’re feeling terribly sorry for him, as he’s an older man who so desperately wants to be self sufficient, but lacks the mental capacity to take care of himself, and then he’s zipping around with his robot buddy snatching up priceless books. There’s this fantastic push and pull that often compels you to root for Frank even while he’s doing something that’s clearly wrong and then when Frank is reprimanded, you feel as though you’re suffering the same fate. You’re in Frank’s shoes from beginning to end, and you can feel it.
However, that’s not to say that catching “Robot & Frank” will be an emotional burden. The core concept of “Robot & Frank” itself is just a ton of fun to consider. Writer Christopher D. Ford does a stellar job at both selling the idea that in the future, robot servants could behave in such a manner, but also doesn’t bog viewers down with too many confusing, technical details. He gives just enough to make you want to believe so, in turn, you do believe. Another element that lends itself to keeping the film a short and bittersweet experience is the tight script. Ford wastes no time getting the main point across and then launches into story expansions that add complexity to the material, but also all tie back to the heart of the script, Frank’s condition.
Langella is certainly working with some solid material, but also deserves a great deal of credit himself, always keeping Frank on the cusp of being a man that’s truly sick, but retains just enough sense to get you on his side. He’s somewhat volatile, but also a person that just wants to do what he loves, and Frank just so happens to get a thrill out of stealing high-priced jewels. He’s clearly not at the top of his game, but Langella has no trouble convincing the audience that Frank’s still got it and that cat burglary could be a hobby that could boost his health, a warped version of the treatment that’s part of Robot’s programmed plan.
Marsden, Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter, Madison, and Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, Jennifer, certainly don’t come anywhere close to stealing the spotlight from Langella, but all do have their moments and, most importantly, use their performances to provide a more well-rounded view of Frank. Frank’s relationship with Hunter and Madison not only shows some signs of him being a loving father, but also a distracted one, and his connection to Jennifer suggests he really does long for company despite his insistence on living alone in his home. While Frank still retains some of his memory, the character definitely isn’t all there, so it’s through these supporting characters that we gain some assurance that we’re perceiving him accurately.
“Robot & Frank” is short and sweet, but also quite bittersweet. There’s a smart premise to keep you engaged, mystery to keep you guessing, but also enough answers to ensure satisfaction. Frank’s story may be upsetting, but there’s also more than enough humor, heart and honesty to the film to make it both an enjoyable and thoughtful experience.