It is the not-so-distant future and Frank (Frank Langella) is an aging ex-jewel thief suffering from the beginning signs of senility. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), worries about his dad and buys him a caretaker robot. Frank resists the contraption but soon the ‘bot proves to be very useful, especially when Frank decides to use his new custodian as the means to rekindle his old jewel thieving days in “Robot & Frank.”
A futuristic tale where robots become an integral part of human life, “Robot & Frank” is a warm-hearted and sometime sad story of man and machine bonding. Frank is in denial about his increasing senility but son Hunter, who makes the ten hour round trip to visit his dad every week, sees that Frank’s condition is getting worse. That is when Hunter springs his robotic surprise on his father and demands that he let his new care aid do its job. The relationship starts off on rocky ground but, as their daily regimented routine takes hold, Frank soon begins to accept his new helper.
When Frank is caught shoplifting in a local shop, Robot covers for him and he begins to wonder if his assistant has a larcenous streak. Robot tells Frank that its primary directive is his health, not the legality of his actions. Frank then teaches his ward the tools of his former trade and plans his first heist with his new partner in crime.
Meanwhile, Frank, an avid reader, is smitten with librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) whose job is threatened by modern technology – all the books in the library are being digitally scanned and the need for the library no longer exists. There is also Madison (Liv Tyler), Frank’s free-spirited daughter who arrives on his doorstep, declaring that she, not a machine, will take care of her father. But, by this time, Frank thinks of Robot as a companion and friend and resists her moving in.
The heart of “Robot & Frank,” though, is Robot and Frank and first time director Jake Schreier makes this relationship believable and touching as Frank’s mental state slowly deteriorates. Peter Sarsgaard gives voice to Robot but the animatronics are done in an old fashioned way, with an actor, Rachel Ma, inside the ‘bot. Funny enough, using a human instead of CGI gives the film the chance for real interaction between the title characters. When Frank talks to Robot, he is actually talking to Robot, not a computer image, and this seems fresh after the CGI extravaganzas of “The Dark Night Rises,” “The Amazing Spider Man” and “The Avengers.” Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping it simple, interesting and warm-hearted. I give it a B+.
Frank (Frank Langella, " Frost/Nixon," "The Box") is a former jewelry thief, long divorced, semi-estranged from his children and living alone in Cold Spring, NY. His son Hunter (James Marsden, "The Box," "Straw Dogs") visits weekly, concerned about his dad's increasing memory issues, but the strain is showing. Daughter Madison (Liv Tyler, "The Strangers," "Super") calls from far away places, but the connection's frequently lost. When Hunter comes up with a solution, a high tech home care aid, Frank is disdainful, until he recognizes that the machine's dexterity may enable him to take up his old profession in "Robot & Frank."
Director Jake Schreier's feature film debut springs from a finely balanced script by Christopher D. Ford which uses Don Quixote and a computer hard drive as metaphors for aging. This thoroughly charming, somewhat sad little film is cast with an eye for familial resemblance, but it's largely on Langella's shoulders. It's only flaws are a stretch of a third act revelation and somewhat abrupt denouement. "Robot & Frank" may be modest but it boasts tremendous humanity.
We're made aware of Frank's condition as he once again tells Hunter he's headed to Harry's for lunch, but the address he goes to houses a gift shop, Harry's obviously long gone. Unable to resist the need to practice his trade, he shoplifts a bath product, raising the ire of the fed-up shopkeeper (Ana Gasteyer, TV's 'Suburgatory') who threatens to call the police. Frank's only other activity is to stop in at the Cold Spring library where he enjoys a gentle flirtation with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who appears to recognize his condition. But change is coming to the library as well and the world Frank knows is disappearing. His lifestyle, both dietary and physical, are being pushed into healthier territory by Robot, who has cultivated a garden.
The next time Frank shoplifts, he's almost caught red-handed, then is surprised to discover that Robot actually retrieved the item he ditched. Then, on a date with Jennifer at a library fundraiser, he notes the ostentatious jewels on display. Putting two and two together, Frank begins to plan to rob the home of library trustee Jake (Jeremy Strong) with the help of Robot. When Madison shows up on his doorstep, disgusted with Hunter's solution, Frank has to do some quick thinking to get his buddy back in action, but when Sheriff Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto, TV's 'Suburgatory') comes calling, it suddenly becomes clear that his friend Robot is storing evidence against him.
Robot is a small, white humanoid with a space helmet head, piloted inside by Rachel Ma and given voice by Peter Sarsgaard ("An Education"). It may be a low-tech approach, but Schreier makes the concept work. Ford's script is sly enough to have Robot use reverse psychology on Frank, which, in the end, is artfully used to give the little bot a soul. A rare edition of Don Quixote parallels Frank's new zest for thievery, inspired by his own Sancho Panza, and the definition of self by memory is beautifully encapsulated in Frank's final dilemma. Langella is simply terrific in this role, seamlessly shifting from lucidity to confusion, sparked by the past and his new faceless friend. Sarandon gives a subtle performance, gently accepting her suitor's failing memory as a given of senior romance. There is a wordless scene between these two where so much is communicated it might bring you to tears.
"Robot & Frank" is an odd little film, science fiction on a small budget, a man and machine buddy movie that celebrates love while grieving the gradual loss of a loved one. Other films may have made more noise at Sundance, but that works in its favor - "Robot & Frank" seems a come-out-of-nowhere late summer surprise.
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