Robot & Frank (1982) / Comedy-Sci Fi
MPAA rated: PG-13 for some language
Running time: 89 min.
Cast: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard (voice), Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Ma
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenplay: Christopher D. Ford
Review published September 12, 2012
In this winner at Sundance, Frank Langella (Unknown, The Box) plays Frank Weld, a lonely, divorced, cantankerous elderly father and retired thief who renews his lust for the thrill of the steal when his son enlists the services of a robot to take care of his day-to-day needs in rural upstate New York in the 'near future'. He suffers from senility, memory loss, and dementia, which makes his family all the more concerned for his well-being, and the robot appears to provide for all the health and nutritional needs Frank could ever want, much to the human's chagrin. However, when Frank finds out that the robot (Voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, Knight & Day) was not programmed to know and follow common laws and regulations, he utilizes the contraption's impeccable memory and lightning-fast ability to learn to train it to be the perfect tool for thieving, which revitalizes Frank's life of crime, and life in general, again.
It's not a must-see, but Robot & Frank is still a highly enjoyable comedy-drama-thriller nonetheless, with a couple of nifty twists and characters that stay true to their respective, peculiar world. Frank Langella is fun to watch in all of his cranky moods, and even though he takes to some lying, cheating and stealing for fun, we begin to root for this antihero to succeed in regaining his own mojo in life. Although it features interaction with artificial intelligence at its core, it is a warm and sometimes emotional journey, as we begin to care about Robot as Frank begins to rely on him to get through his day-to-day activities.
There are several contrasts in Frank's life to the value of memory, as he suffers from not having much of one, while matched with a partner whose own memory is impeccable, and begins to carry incriminating evidence that might eventually come back to haunt Frank should he be suspected. Meanwhile, Frank visits the local library on a frequent basis, a building that is nothing but stored memories and information, where he regularly chats with Jennifer (Sarandon, Jeff Who Lives at Home), the librarian he can't help but be attracted to, even though she too is in danger of being outsourced by artificial intelligence. It's a sad thing that the library is about to undergo a renovation and re-imagination from books to a more Avant Garde digital warehouse, as it, as with the people who use it, have changed the way they receive and value information over the years.
Franks' son Hunter and daughter Madison are played by James Marsden (27 Dresses, Enchanted) and Liv Tyler (The Incredible Hulk, Reign Over Me), respectively. Hunter is the closest in proximity but furthest in his ability to deal with Frank, and he isn't as keen on the life his father left him with, becoming a bit of a deadbeat when he would get put into prison for the crimes he would commit. Madison is the more caring and understanding of the two siblings, though her work has her traveling all over the world, with just enough time to call in to check on the old man every once in a while as time permits. The irony is that part of Frank's crankiness is that he's lonely and bored, but now that he has Robot and his rekindling of his life of adventure, when his kids do try to give him some extra time, he begins to see them as they viewed him -- a familial obligation that's getting in the way of doing the things he'd rather be doing.
Robot & Frank makes for a nice debut for first-time feature film director Jake Schreier, but it's really Christopher D. Ford's (The Fuzz, The Scariest Show on Television) original screenplay that delights in its characterizations and amusing, lighthearted situations, while always staying true to its own characters and their inability to be anything more than the persons they've always been. But most memorable will be the subtle but strong performance of Langella, who embodies the stuck-in-his-ways older man who is too proud to ask for help, but too lost to make it on his own. In the end, it's a unique story about an unlikely friendship, and how one can more readily expose ones vulnerabilities to another, even something that isn't even a person, once they feel like they are no longer being a burden, especially when that entity was created precisely with the task of perpetual assistance in mind.
©2012 Vince Leo