Robot & Frank
Labelling a movie “quirky” is to risk damning it with faint praise. It suggests a benign eccentricity but an absence of bite or depth. Robot & Frank is most definitely benignly eccentric and doesn’t have much in the way of bite or depth. It doesn’t possess the stuff of great movies in its DNA, but nevertheless exudes an irresistible warmth.
Christopher D. Ford adapted his student film, concerning an elderly man cared for by a robot, for his fellow ex-classmate Jake Schreier. It’s set a few years hence but the only signs of this, besides the titular ‘bot, are widescreen Skype communication devices and the odd souped-up OAP vehicle belting it around the rural idyll. This pocket of the future appears hermetically sealed, and it’s where Frank (Frank Langella) finds himself in his dotage. He’s suffering from the early stages of dementia, but likes to re-enact his past glories as a cat burglar in the comfort of his home. He’s a regular at the local library, and regularly attempts to woo the librarian (Susan Sarandon). When his long-suffering son (James Marsden, who previously appeared with Langella in The Box and Superman Returns) presents him with a robot helper, Frank is in initially dismissive of the automaton. But, when Robot aids him in one of his shoplifting excursions, Frank begins to see him in a new light. He is no longer just a cleaner and dispenser of unwelcome dietary regimes; he’s a partner in crime.
The relationship between the two unfolds at an amiabl pace, as gruff Frank mellows in response to the unmodulated but soothing tones of Robot. It’s quite a feat that the chemistry between the two is so perfectly sustained, as Peter Sarsgaard, who voices Robot, never met Langella (Rachael Ma is inside the robot suit). When Frank eventually admits to his hippy daughter (Liv Tyler) that his helper has become his friend, it’s a genuinely touching moment and one we have no trouble believing. Schreier and Ford repeatedly make it clear that Robot has no emotions, but the benevolent tone of Sarsgaard will lead you to doubt this as much as Frank does.
The heist plot is very much secondary to the heart of the piece, but this conceit is where the few hiccups in plot and character lie. The idea that the designers of the robot would omit to programme it with the rule of law is scarcely credible, and a conversation on the subject doesn’t make it any more likely. There is also a mistaken assumption that, in order to get behind Frank’s thievery, Jeremy Strong’s designer (who is renovating the library) needs to be excessively shrill and boorish. Then there’s choice of book for Frank to steal; it’s a little on-the-nose (Don Quixote), inviting us to parallel our protagonist and his diligent sidekick with Cervantes’ work.
But the melancholy tone is affecting rather than cloying, and the humour comes naturally rather than being forced (such that a line about an enema feels out of place, thrown in for a cheap yuk). Robot’s meetings with the library help, Mr. Darcy, are very funny, resembling those awkward situations when you’re forced into conversation with someone to whom you have nothing to say. And Sarandon gives a lovely, touching performance in a small but significant supporting role. As great as Langella and Sarsgaard are, it’s the soulful kindness she displays at key moments that is most poignant.
This is a simple tale, and at times it the telltale signs of its expansion to fit feature length are evident (the police investigation scenes never quite play and come across as slightly laboured). But as a meditation on friendship and aging, Robot & Frank is subtle and insightful. The score, by Francis and the Lights, may exclaim a little too loudly, ‘This movie is quirky!” But that’s exactly what it is.