Like the best movies, the ones that manage effortlessly to work their way into your head and heart, Robot & Frank has a deceptive simplicity. It also helps to have Frank Langella, a stellar actor at his magnificent best, in the starring role. Langella's Frank is a retired burglar, a second-story man ready to hang it up at 70. His children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), don't know what to do with him. His parental neglect extended to two prison stints.
Enter Robot (voiced with droll wit by Peter Sarsgaard), a talking machine that will keep the old-timer in line. Or so Frank's kids think. After a few days of Robot's lectures on diet and exercise, Frank gets his own ideas to enlist Robot in a new robbery scheme. There's bracing humor here, and a dash of heartbreak – just don't expect to be wrapped up in a warm and fuzzy cinematic blanket. Robot & Frank, crisply directed by newcomer Jake Schreier from a fluid script by Christopher D. Ford, is made of tougher stuff. Just like Frank's flirtation with a librarian (a tangy Susan Sarandon), the movie keeps springing scrappy surprises. It also addresses questions of aging and neglect that Hollywood likes to run from. Langella, who's played everyone from Dracula to Nixon onscreen, is giving a master class in acting. Enroll now.
For the dog days of August, this weekend boasts an unusual bounty of worthwhile small releases arriving on the big screen. So I thought I’d divide today’s review space between two new independent films by young directors, both of which turn what could have been clichéd subject material into films as unexpected as they are unforgettable.
Robot & Frank, the debut feature of director Jake Schreier, is a sneaky little bastard of a movie: It creeps up on you slowly, at first seeming like something you might have seen before, then revealing itself as several different somethings you definitely haven’t. I know I’ve never seen an intergenerational domestic comedy about the tensions caused by live-in robot labor, or a heist picture in which one of the prime break-in targets was a rare edition of Don Quixote. It’s also unusual to come across a sci-fi fable that’s neither dystopic nor utopic. Instead, Schreier’s film—scripted by Christopher D. Ford and starring Frank Langella as Frank, an old man whose son buys him a mechanized caretaker—is set in an unspecified “near future” that, like the present, is full of muddled individual people, each trying to work out day by day how to cope with technology’s growing presence in their lives.
Hunter (James Marsden) doesn’t buy his dad that home health care ‘bot because he’s an unfeeling son. On the contrary: Hunter regularly drives the 10-hour round trip to visit Frank’s house in Cold Spring, N.Y., and lovingly nags his father to eat better, to get out more, to see a specialist about his failing memory. But Frank is a crank and a misanthrope, distrustful of technology—he still checks out books by the pile from the local library, which is about to be modernized into a sleek, printed-matter-free “community space.”
After a few weeks of bitter resistance to the ministrations of the robot (which he refuses, on principle, to name), Frank grudgingly submits to the machine’s insistence that he stop eating junk food, go for hikes, and stick to a daily schedule. But it’s not until Frank confesses his secret passion, cat burglary—in his younger years, he served a stint in prison for it—that he realizes the true potential of his new gadget. Once he’s determined that the robot has received no programming vis-à-vis morality, Frank trains it to pick locks, with the vague plan of breaking into the library to steal the kind, sexy librarian’s favorite book. She’s played by Susan Sarandon, and Frank, not surprisingly, has long been sweet on her. But when a robot and a man with dementia plan a heist together, there’s a lot that can go wrong …
At heart, Frank & Robot is, true to its title, a buddy movie about the complicated relationship between a thief and his mechanized sidekick (a sleek, white, helmeted creature voiced with unsettling politeness by Peter Sarsgaard). But it’s also a rueful and funny reflection on aging, death, parenthood, and technology. Hunter hopes the home health care ‘bot will be his father’s salvation, while Frank’s daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), a globetrotting activist who’s fervently anti-robot, is convinced it will be his downfall. Instead, the robot, like the movie, turns out to be something richly, ambivalently in between.