Robot & Frank
2012, PG-13, 90 min. Directed by Jake Schreier. Voice by Peter Sarsgaard. Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Ana Gasteyer.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 31, 2012
What a weird, winning little movie is Robot & Frank, which explores what happens to the essential self as the memory goes. Oh, and it’s a heist picture. With robot butlers. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.
A hulk of peevishness and lost purpose, Frank (Langella) is a former – if not quite reformed – cat burglar. Long-divorced and semi-estranged from his two grown children, Frank lives alone in upstate New York in what the film lightly calls “the near future.” His house is a mess, and his mind, it appears, is in similar disarray. He walks regularly into town to lunch at a long-closed diner – “I ate there last week,” Frank puzzles anew, the disappointment always fresh – and he also makes a habit of shoplifting from the chichi bath shop that replaced his beloved diner. When the proprietess screeches at him, “Who is responsible for you?” the heart hurts for him: Indeed, who is responsible for Frank?
Soon enough it’s a robot, a “health-care aide” brought in by Frank’s son (Marsden) to monitor his diet and restore order to his days. At first Frank can’t stand the thing – a bit of a clunker, it looks like a life-sized LeGo Stormtrooper, and it’s always nattering away about organic greens – but then Frank catches on that the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) would make a heck of an accomplice in his newest breaking-and-entering scheme, and a common ground is found.
Robot & Frank doesn’t belabor its futuristic setting. The technology on display, including a library-helper robot ostensibly modeled after a file cabinet on wheels, has a charming first-generation feel about it, and the electronica original score (by Francis and the Lights) casually recalls the “this-is-the-future!” soundscape of so many Eighties’ movies and their now goofily dated-looking hovercrafts and ray guns. The future here is less a setting than a thematic concern of Christopher D. Ford's nuanced script: The robot provides Frank, so lost in his past, with a reason to look to tomorrow.