Directed by Jake Schreier, Robot & Frank is an amusing if somewhat cluttered diversion. It has something to say about aging and losing one’s memory somewhat artfully. It also has something to say about robot caretakers and a little left in the tank to cook up some heist action. This is all framed in the “near future.”
Schreier makes his directorial debut with this picture and he does a neat job keeping things simple. Working from a screenplay by Christopher D. Ford, who had the idea for Robot & Frank in 2002, the filmmaker plays things close to the chest and really seems interested in the emotional core. At the same time, Schreier and Ford’s work almost seems to shun any moral component.
Frank Langella stars as Frank, an aging jewel thief living by himself. His life as an ex-convict is largely behind him, but he still basks in the glory of his past despite his fading memory and increasing difficulties. Frank’s son (James Marsden) visits him somewhat resentfully and eventually settles on presenting his father with a robot caretaker.
Frank and the robot have a rough start, but things turn around when the retired crook discovers that the bot has no real moral compass. It has no problem helping him steal soap, so this reignites the passion for theft in the old man and the unlikely duo sets to work. Frank settles on a plan to rob the library to steal a book to impress the librarian (Susan Sarandon), but things don’t necessarily go as planned.
Robot & Frank works best when it keeps the focus on how Frank relates to his family. The scenes with Langella and Marsden are recognizable to anyone who’s ever dealt with the concept of a loved one drifting away, while the appearance of Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter Madison adds another layer. It must be difficult for the kids to witness the changes in their father and their various methods of coping prove interesting.
The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard and inhabited by dancer Rachael Ma, is mostly representative of the unavoidable march of technology. Ford’s screenplay resists the urge to make a character out of the bot, eschewing catchphrases and overzealous personality traits for a blank canvass of skilful warmth and a limitless sense of duty.
The choice of playing the robot as neutral means that Langella isn’t working with a corny sidekick. Indeed, it seems that he is mostly working by himself. There certainly are uses to the robot’s skills, like his faster lock-picking abilities, but there’s little to suggest that Frank wouldn’t be capable of achieving order on his own. The bot is a catalyst, but not a cure.
Some might think of Robot & Frank as lacking for not pushing into familiar “fear of technology” material, but that doesn’t appear to be Schreier’s point. The only suggestion to the contrary comes with shots of robots doing household tasks during the closing credits. The film seems to stick to the idea of robots as being merely part of the world, like transparent phones and video screens.
It could be argued that the storyline involving Frank’s criminal past and the heist throws a monkey wrench into the fluidity of the movie. This is the sort of doodad that could be any hobby or “thing” that Frank did in order to drag it into his presence. The movie’s last third gets tangled in too many complications as a result, almost paving the way for the arrival of Danny Ocean.
Still, Robot & Frank is worth a look. The understated yet committed performance from Langella is money in the bank and the movie’s overall acceptance of technology as a part of life makes for some neat quandaries involving how to care for the elderly (and ourselves). It deals with aging reasonably and avoids the tantrums that usually come with the territory, except, of course, with the inclusion of a little light burglary.