‘Robot and Frank’ Provides An Utterly Charming Friendship Tale
Published: Sunday, September 16, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
It’s a bit difficult to sort Robot & Frank into one solid genre. It’s science fiction, but there are no flying cars or meals in pill form. It produces a generous amount of laughs, but it’s not really a comedy. And it revolves around serious themes, yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously to be a drama. Whatever genre it may land in–or hop around–Robot & Frank is a lovely little film that is both pleasant and thoughtful.
The film is set sometime in the near future, where technology has continued to advance at a rapid pace, though not so much that we lose our grasp on it. Robots are a regular sight, found in homes and libraries. Televisions and telephones are one and the same, while cell phones are hair-thin slices of glass, much like what we anticipated the iPhone 5 to look like.
Frank, portrayed by a praiseworthy Frank Langella, is a “retiree” with a colorful past in jewelry theft. Still attached to his former occupation, Frank occasionally shoplifts the odd porcelain dog or two from the local boutique. He also spends his time doing a fair amount of reading, which he partly uses as an excuse to visit Jennifer, played by Susan Sarandon, one of the few employees remaining at the aging and forgotten library. The venerable edifice can’t escape the advances of technology, however, as it is being repossessed by a 20-something yuppie named Jake (Jeremy Strong), who wishes to reimagine the “modern library experience.”
A divorcee of nearly 30 years, Frank lives alone in his largely disheveled house. He does keep in contact with his two children, though. Hunter, played by James Marsden, is a perpetually occupied businessman who is hardly able to spend time with his wife and children. He visits Frank every weekend—a habit that he’s becoming increasingly tired of, given that it’s a five-hour trip each way. Frank’s daughter Madison, portrayed by Liv Tyler, is the social justice-conscious, out-to-save-the-world type. She spends much of her time aiding disadvantaged people in Turkmenistan, a place she calls “beautiful … but so sad … but so beautiful.”
In addition to his disarranged family, Frank has an escalating problem: His memory is deteriorating – a fact that has his two children concerned for his well-being.
Particularly concerned about his father’s waning memory, and because Frank refuses to move to a “brain center” to aid his condition, Hunter purchases a robot assistant for Frank. The charming little machine is programmed to stimulate Frank’s daily routine through projects and a healthy diet. As would be expected with any old-timer, though, Frank loathes the thing. The robot perseveres, however, and encourages Frank to wake up early, do exercise, and start a garden. Needless to say, the robot begins to grow on Frank. Before long, Frank realizes that he values the robot more than he cares to admit, especially when he decides to take his daily projects to an unexpected level: by going back to his old cat-burglarizing ways.
The cast is colorful and appealing, particularly the robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. Although the technology is perhaps years away, the miniature automaton feels eerily believable. In fact, during the end credits, the audience is given a few glimpses at the progress that robots are making in the present day – and it is as fascinating as it is scary.
Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon form a lovely pair—like two teenagers from a lost generation, trying to adapt to the rapidly advancing and unforgiving future. Marsden and Tyler do a solid job as supporting characters, and Strong’s unnervingly obnoxious character simply begs you to hate him. Yet it is Langella’s performance that drives the film. He is authentic as an old codger who eventually comes to embrace his artificial assistant.
Some may find that the film drags a smidge, but director Jake Schreier is successful at keeping the audience entertained through a mix of genuinely funny comedy and drama. The film juggles various themes–chief among them the inevitable evolution of technology and how we as humans will be able to adapt to it—but more compelling is the role of memory. There is a touching and unexpected scene well into the film that forces us to realize how truly precious memory can be, and at the same time how heart-wrenchingly awful its loss can become, especially when we’re powerless against it.
The film is undeniably charming and even those with ice in their veins and a heart three sizes too small will not be able to resist grinning at Frank’s antics with his robot. Even as they spend day after day planning elaborate heists, you can’t help but root for them. By the time the credits roll, moviegoers will be wishing for a robot of their own. n