Set in the near future, an ex-jewel thief receives a gift from his son: a robot butler programmed to look after him. But soon the two companions try their luck as a heist team.
'Sweet’, 'gentle’ and 'Frank Langella’ are not words one would normally associate with science fiction cinema, but Robot & Frank is not the type of film that takes place in a galaxy far, far away. Its world is ours, only in 'the near future", and Jake Schreier’s lovely film is more concerned with hard truths than hardware.
Central to its success is Langella’s commitment to the role
The wonderful Langella towers over the film as the gruff, aging ex-cat burglar whose mind is slipping into dementia. Living alone in an idyllic upstate New York setting, he occasionally heads into the nearby small town to eat at a cafe that closed months ago and to amuse himself by shoplifting useless trinkets. He visits the library, where he flirts with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), until one day he is told the institution will be shut down and all the books turned into e-files, all to serve the vision of its yuppie investor, Jake (a slightly too cartoonish Jeremy Strong).
His son Hunter (James Marsden), tired of travelling the long distance to check on Frank every weekend, decides to provide an android helper to care for the ailing man. At first reluctant, Frank soon manipulates the well-intentioned robot’s basic command-prompts and has him act as offsider in one of the biggest jewellery robberies of his career. The plotting slows down somewhat following the heist, with local sheriff Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto) and the whiney Jake visiting Frank’s house once, twice, and then again. Debutant screenwriter Christopher D. Ford’s first and third acts are terrific, but the mid-section is saggy.
Robot & Frank is a tale of fading self-worth and once strong family ties, of the importance of those powerful but fleeting memories that dart in and out of one’s consciousness. Its darker elements are handled with a light touch that don’t allow the film’s fantasy structure to become overburdened with self-importance. It captures the same good-natured tone and indie-cool likability that Colin Trevorrow displayed recently in Safety Not Guaranteed; the life-enriching influence of a central sci-fi character on the aged also invariably recalls Ron Howard’s Cocoon, though it’s far less saccharine in its execution.
Central to its success is Langella’s commitment to the role, which has him interacting for long periods with 'Robot’ alone. (He refuses to give it a name.) It’s never quite a friendship, as Frank is constantly using the droid for personal gain, but the value of a partner who cares (even one who is programmed to) becomes clear to Frank when Robot is faced with having its memory wiped. These scenes, reflecting Frank’s own fateful destiny, are genuinely moving, as are those following a final reel twist involving Sarandon’s librarian.
The production is shot in beautiful widescreen ratio by Matthew J. Lloyd and belies its meagre budget, as do some special effect flourishes that predicts how technology will influence our lives in the upcoming years (probably a decade, though it’s never stated). Best of these is Robot itself, which moves with a measured, believable grace; the melding of actress/dancer Rachel Ma’s physicality and Peter Sarsgaard’s voice is seamless, ensuring the illusion that Schreier creates, one that’s crucial to the emotional impact of the story.