Film Review: Robot & Frank

The chemistry between the leads of <i>Robot &amp; Frank</i>&#8212;by first-time director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford&#8212;makes it unique. So what if one lead is a robot (first-billed)? The other is the wonderful Frank Langella.

Robot & Frank centers on an aging thief, played by Frank Langella in a slick but still touching performance. Frank lives alone and may be losing it, which worries his two adult kids. He traipses the woods and roads—will he get lost or nicked by a car?—battling dementia though he won’t admit it, on his way to the nearby small town. Harry’s, Frank’s old hangout, is now a “Blush ’n Beauty Bar.” All the more reason to keep his skills intact and slip a little fancy carved soap into his pocket, just to irritate the store owner (Ana Gasteyer).

The semi-rural town of Cold Spring, 50 miles north of Manhattan, is the setting, time pointedly the “near-future.” The real-life library is adroitly used—note bene to all those who go for zillion-dollar sets—with one especially attractive fixture: a librarian played by Susan Sarandon. As well as a point of destination for Frank, and an occasion for the roué in him to remember how to flirt, it also provides a metaphorical riff on the uselessness of old things (books, people) in a newly high-tech world.

Robot is delivered to Frank as a combination butler/housekeeper/cook by his dutiful if stressed-out son (James Marsden) to keep Frank on track. At first the Robot’s program of exercise and healthful eating is rejected by Frank—the Robot too, of course—but bit by bit the two affect each other in unforeseen ways. (The plot also has a bit of a romantic red herring, but not enough to turn on your alert buttons till later, when a few plot puzzle pieces seem missing. It hardly matters.)

Langella is tough but tender, slippery but trustworthy, smart but irritable, a tour de force with evocations of advancing age only part of the package. It would also be easy to go gaga over new director Jake Schreier and make rosy predictions about his future in the movie business. No problem with that, except the script is truly attention-getting. Sure, Langella delivers the line “I’m talking to an appliance!” (a UGC-60L home-care robot) with impeccable timing and just the right soupçon of old-age irritability. But consider the line itself, with its Lady Bracknell quality. (It seems the film’s original concept came from screenwriter Christopher Ford’s thesis movie. He and Schreier met as students at New York University; the film shared an Alfred P. Sloan Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.)

Robot & Frank goes beyond the usual “slipping away” take on memory and dementia, which is why the movie is never mawkish. It asks what we remember and why. What is our link to the past? The robot says it best: “If they wipe my memory, I’ll have to go back to the shop.”

It also shows the strength of love which can’t fix everything, and the importance of work you’re good at, even if it’s illegal. Watching Langella as a highly accomplished second-story man is just, well, sexy. (Nod to Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief).

The movie punches with social commentary as well: Damn those yuppies ruining the small towns, entrepreneurial types such as the developer played by Jeremy Strong. But it’s the companionship between Robot and Frank that truly drives the film. Not since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has male bonding had such a meaningful but comic connection. Having an accomplice may be natural for thievery, but perfect partnership is the movie’s heart.

The acting is uniformly first-rate: the quicksilver Langella, though a septuagenarian. still moving like the most supple of cats; Marsden believably anxious doing the sandwiched-generation thing, driving many miles to visit his dad while worrying about his own kids the whole time; Sarandon strong but empathetic, playing a “Marion the librarian” type yet sizzling behind those huge oversized glasses. After a bit of overacting when she first is seen via Skype as a cause-driven type traveling the world, Liv Tyler delivers some touching moments when she comes home to take care of her dad; an especially powerful flare-up with Frank takes you by surprise, and will resonate with relatives of those who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Who could have foreseen comparing robots and computers as personality types or performers? As in “This robot is so much nicer than HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey”? Robot & Frank also poses a new metaphysical question for cineastes: Can a robot act? Peter Sarsgaard’s voice as the Robot is uncanny, both otherworldly and emotive. (The Robot “body” belongs to Rachel Ma and Dana Morgan.) It’s lovely to see A.I. used for something besides blowing up humans. And what does it say about the state of emotion in most movies today when you are more easily moved to tears by the head tilt of a mechanical thing?

Of course, Robot & Frank is so sly, it makes disbelief incredibly easy to suspend. As the Robot says, “Developing trust is part of my program.”