Review: Robot & Frank
by Justin Jasso
With the advances seen in technology today, it may be a given that, sometime in the near future, humans will have robots living with them performing daily chores and assisting with activities of daily living. So when a film about a robot and a man comes out, without a current model of how things will actually be, there is a great opportunity for the concept to go wrong with the film. There are even more ways that a movie about a robot and an old man losing his memory might have gone wrong. Let’s be honest, robots aren’t necessarily known for their sense of humor. All those ways, so easy to imagine, have nothing to do with Robot & Frank, an emotional, funny and realistic movie about the future.
Frank Weld (Frank Langella) is a retired cat-burglar living alone in his old family house in Cold Spring, a town north of Manhattan. Frank is in his 70s, suffering from early stages of dementia, and to make matters worse, is bored with living alone. He gets out of the house and heads into town to steal soap from a local beauty shop and flirt with the local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) here and there. He does his best to avoid talking to his children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), as they’d like him to enter a home so they can cut the responsibility from their hands.
So Hunter arranges for the next best thing: a robotic butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to run Frank’s daily affairs, boost his diet and improve his cognitive abilities. At first, Frank resists the robot with every fiber of his being, until he realizes that having a compliant partner around the house might be beneficial. A cat-burglar once is a cat-burglar always, and it isn’t long until Frank enlists the services of his mechanized helper to pick locks and heist jewels from the man (Jeremy Strong) in charge of changing the library from books to digital.
The plot of the film really is secondary to the relationship developed between an aging man dealing with mental illness and the most unlikely of characters, a robot. Langella captures the unexpected sense of affection and loyalty that develops between man and machine, even as machine reminds man repeatedly that he does not, in fact, have emotions. Tell that to the guy who’s still feeling them. Peter Sarsgaard also hits the mark with his vocal tone and pacing as the voice of Robot. It brings back memories of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of the cast (Sarandon, Marsden, Tyler, and Jeremy Strong) offer able support, but this is Langella’s show all the way.
Robot & Frank hints at many wonderful implications between this ailing former cat-burglar and his newfound friend of a robot. It’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t trust these compelling ideas to carry their work without piling on empty sci-fi details, romantic-melodrama that don’t really go anywhere (although does have one touching moment), and action-adventure elements that lack thrills. It would have been a better, more effective movie if, like the title, it had just been about the robot and Frank. Their surprisingly emotional final scene together is a profound indication of what a deeper exploration of their relationship might have looked like, and makes us thankful for what we were given and long for what may have been.
Ratiing: 3.5 out of 5 Stars