Movie review by Greg Carlson
With a mash-up premise that unites buddy movie, family drama, character study, and crime caper, “Robot & Frank” raises stakes higher by placing all of these ingredients inside the sci-fi trappings of its not-too-distant future setting. The movie marks the simultaneous feature narrative debut for former NYU classmates Christopher Ford, who wrote the screenplay, and Jake Schreier, who directed. The filmmakers are blessed to have Frank Langella as their protagonist, particularly because the juxtaposition of a forgetful senior citizen being scolded by a diminutive machine could so easily disintegrate into the pit of odd-couple ridiculousness.
Langella’s Frank is a one-time jewel thief and ex-con now moldering away in his modest rural retreat. Despite a lack of interest in housekeeping and grocery shopping, Frank regularly visits a local library to check out books and Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the kind, sweet librarian dealing with impending repurposing of the facility following the community’s waning interest in physical media. A valuable copy of “Don Quixote” echoes Frank’s position as a chivalrous but antiquated conjurer of fanciful illusions, and Jennifer’s role as Frank’s Dulcinea will come to have bittersweet significance by the movie’s final scenes.
Frank’s robot, a gift from his impatient but concerned son Hunter (James Marsden), is programmed to assist with household chores and meal preparation, and to provide companionship and therapies designed to help with Frank’s cognitive deterioration. Designed by the creative minds at special effects firm Alterian (the veteran company known for Daft Punk’s helmets), physically performed by petite dancer Rachel Ma, and voiced by Peter Sarsgaard with an obvious affinity for Douglas Rain’s restrained sense of politeness and calm, the VGC-60L automaton makes a believable comic foil for the curmudgeonly Frank.
Many science fiction enthusiasts will appreciate the light touch of Ford and Schreier’s vision of things to come. Aside from a handful of subtle markers applied to automobiles, fashion, and communication devices, the film presents a familiar world similar to our own, and along with the aforementioned items, the presence of sophisticated robots provides evidence that the story is not unfolding in 2012. Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a globetrotting humanitarian, expresses strong displeasure at the thought of a robot in her father’s life, but by the time she arrives to complicate Frank’s plans, the robot has already been taught a great deal about casing potential targets, picking locks, and avoiding detection (one can only speculate whether training a mechanical caretaker to steal imperils the Three Laws of Robotics).
More than one critic has bemoaned the film’s apparent lack of interest in the philosophical explorations of humanness at the heart of works like “Blade Runner,” but “Robot & Frank” effectively addresses the topic by establishing a parallel between Frank’s dementia and a plot development in which the total erasure of the robot’s memory will provide a solution to a significant problem. By the time this dilemma materializes, Frank has come to value the friendship provided by the robot, and the possible destruction of his companion’s “brain function” reminds the old man of his own fragile mental state.