Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier, dabbles with sci-fi elements to tell an altogether engaging tale about aging, illness and companionship. Think of it as the light alternative to Michael Hanake’s Amour. Warmer, easier, and with 100% more robots. But don’t be fooled. Let your guard down and Robot & Frank might just touch you every bit as much as Hanake’s award-winning statement.
Set in an eminently believable near-future in which automatons are commonplace and the printed word is fast becoming antiquated, the film focuses on Frank (Frank Langella), a once notorious cat burglar (and former jail-bird) now retired in New York state and losing a battle to keep his wits. His memories are slipping from him, and his busy children are justly concerned for his well-being. One day his Princeton-educated son Hunter brings him a new piece of hardware; a robot helper to supervise dear old dad so that he doesn’t have to. Frank is initially suspicious of his hi-tech butler, but once he realises that the robot’s programming allows room for some dubious morality, he begins to hatch plans to relive his glory days with his compliant new friend.
Frank’s new vocation works wonders for his mental faculties, though his improvement is not without its lapses. Christopher D. Ford’s well-balanced script takes advantage of this to lay ground work for some dramatic moves later on, whilst remaining aware of its own inherent silliness – something which it also plays on to great comedic effect.
The tech design aspects here feature a nice blend of svelte touch-screen chic and chunky retro-cool, and are placed judiciously, suggesting a transitional time not too far ahead of us. It’s sci-fi candyfloss for an importantly human tale, and Langella knocks it out of the park as Frank. If the film had less conspicuous genre elements he would surely have had more recognition recently. His eventual bond with the robot, along with the sad closing of a local library touch on questions of how we react to material objects, imbuing them with character when they are, in fact, just things. Before long Frank can’t bare to lose his robot helper. And of course, we in the audience feel affection for him too.
All of this could’ve become mawkish. The kind of thing Robin Williams might’ve once starred in. Saccharine and preachy. Yet Robot & Frank avoids nearly every open trap beneath it’s high-wire. It dabbles in light farce and medium-risk drama in the majority, but when the time comes to take a twist to the more poignant, it does so without over-balancing. It never lands in the swamp of sentimental soup lingering beneath it. Robot & Frank makes it across the ravine and makes it look easy too.
Schreier’s direction isn’t particularly showy, which is also befitting to the story. He allows the tale to unfold, taking a backseat from grandstanding. The last time smart sci-fi blended this well with emotionally engaging characters was Duncan Jones’ Moon. In fact, this feels like a nice companion piece to that movie in a strange way, though their palettes differ greatly.Still, they’d play well together as a double-bill – this film’s robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) recalls the benevolent Gerty of Jones’ film.
Schreier’s movie is not the one man show Moon was however, and Langella is given solid if unspectacular support from James Marsden and Liv Tyler as the grown-up kids looking out for him whilst looking out for themselves. If anything here doesn’t really ring true, it’s Tyler’s Madison – a somewhat cliché wandering spirit with a nonsensical stance against using robots as ‘slaves’. Fortunately there’s also Susan Sarandon as Frank’s potential love interest Jennifer, doing a good job with what little she is given to do. Better still is Jeremy Strong as Frank’s yuppie neighbour Jake, the only one here playing big, but getting away with it as the man-you-love-to-hate.
Robot & Frank clips along at a great pace without skimping over anything too quickly. Sure it’s an easy watch, but that shouldn’t detract from it receiving a warm critical reception. It’d be easy for this movie to be overlooked, when in fact it’s something of a gem. Why can’t a breezy comedy be considered in the same league as a weighty art house movie? I laughed when I was supposed to, and I was genuinely touched when I didn’t expect to be. I was also thoroughly entertained from beginning to end. Maybe I’m a cretin for suggesting it, but Shreier’s movie is just as worthy of your time as Hanake’s. Yes, they’re entirely different beasts, and comparing them is a little foolish… but I know which one I’m more likely to want to return to 12 months down the road.