- Rated PG-13
All photos © Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed by Ezra Stead
ne of my most lasting fantasies of an alternate life for myself has always been that of the skilled, high-stakes thief, and for this reason, I have always thoroughly enjoyed a good heist movie. Jake Schreier's debut feature, “Robot & Frank,” is a pretty good heist movie buoyed by a strong lead performance from the great Frank Langella, in full-on lovable old grouch mode as the titular Frank. In fact, the character sort of recalls Alan Arkin's Grandpa Edwin Hoover from “Little Miss Sunshine,” though with a smaller, less quirky family and Alzheimer's Disease instead of a heroin habit. However, more than just a pretty good heist movie, “Robot & Frank” is also a funny and surprisingly touching dramedy about a man whose unlikely friendship with a robot helps him reconnect with his family and find a sense of purpose in his old age.
As the film begins, Frank seems to have given up on life. His son Hunter (James Marsden) periodically drives upstate from New York City to check up on him, while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is overseas in Turkmenistan on a philanthropic mission. She checks in with him via video-phone conversations. Set in the near future, “Robot & Frank” has a charmingly antiquated vision of that future that wouldn't feel out of place in a '70s science fiction film. In one scene, the classical orchestra of a fancy restaurant is augmented by a synthesizer with pitch-shifting and MIDI triggers, giving the music a comically outer space sound. Frank's main joy in life is shoplifting ornate soaps from a local bath and beauty shop, and visiting the public library, where he does his best to charm the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). The library is a symbol of the old world that is gradually slipping away from Frank, as the physical books are replaced by digital files.
Worried about his father's ailing mental and physical health, Hunter provides Frank with a high-tech robot servant, known simply as Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), whose prime directive is to improve Frank's health. Initially, Frank is annoyed by this, saying he'd “rather die eating cheeseburgers” than live on the diet of whole grains and steamed vegetables that Robot provides for him. However, when Robot instinctively helps him with his shoplifting, Frank realizes he can teach Robot the ways of the second-story man, a life he dearly misses. Soon, they are working together to plot heists that just might help Frank win Jennifer's heart, and will definitely help him get back at Jake (Jeremy Strong), the condescending yuppie jerk who now owns the public library.
“Robot & Frank” is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between its two title characters, which is luckily most of the time. Hunter and Madison are essentially plot devices used to bring Frank and Robot together or apart, respectively, and Madison in particular is a somewhat clichéd and insignificant character. A standard liberal-guilt do-gooder, she opposes the use of robot labor, even going so far as to lament the state of robot rights, when it is only Frank who ultimately sees Robot as more than just an appliance. A mid-film diversion in which Madison comes to stay with and care for Frank does little more than add some tension to Robot and Frank's upcoming heist plans, but it is a brief and not entirely unwelcome sequence. More essential is Frank's reluctance to allow Robot to be sent back to the lab, where his digital memory will be erased, a poignant reflection of Frank's fears over his own fading mental facilities.
Without giving too much away, I will say that the film’s third act is the best, when the bond between Frank and Robot is at its strongest. By this point, the heat from the heists they have pulled off together is on and some surprising revelations are made. Though the begrudging friendship between two characters inherently at odds – Frank, the old, and Robot, the newest of the new – is nothing we haven't seen before, it is sustained by excellent performances from Langella and Sarsgaard, and it develops into something beautiful and unexpectedly moving.