Robot & Frank
Robot & Frank is blessed with a wonderful script, a strong central premise and a stellar cast. Oh, and a robot. Perceptive and witty genius flows directly from the pen of relatively unknown writer Christopher D. Ford (the only bio on his IMDb is the fact that he is allergic to penicillin). Compelling and comic, his work is a pretty thoughtful consideration of what our near future will be like, complete with all the problems integral in dealing with an aging population as life expectancy rises. An eclectic mixture of genres, Robot & Frank is part buddy movie, part action heist, and part indie flick, but seamlessly fuses them all. Somehow Ford and Schreir have managed to tread the butter-covered tightrope between poignant and cloying, successfully avoiding any hint of the saccharine flavour you might expect from a film about an old man and his robot buddy. And did I mention there’s a robot? A robot called Robot.
Robot & Frank opens with loner Frank (Frank Langella) who we soon learn is divorced with two grown children and a deteriorating memory. His son, Hunter, believes he is dealing with this problem when he purchases for his father a top-of-the-line robot butler. Predictably the cantankerous Frank does not react well to the suggestions that he eat vegetables and start gardening, continually addressing Robot with petulant rejections peppered with salty language. On one of his regular visits to the local library, Frank is informed by the librarian (Susan Sarandon) that all the books are being removed to make way for an “augmented reality experience”, including her prized possession: an antique copy of Don Quixote. In a desperate bid to woo the wild-haired and bespectacled bibliophile, Frank plans an elaborate break-in at the library with his trusty robot sidekick. Oh, did I not mention that Frank used to be a renowned jewel thief? Must have slipped my mind…
Anyway, then there’s a big fancy schmancy party at the library to celebrate its rejuvenation, where Frank is treated like a fossilised relic of print media by the patronising toad, Jake (Jeremy Strong), WHO JUST HAPPENS to live next door to Frank in their disparate woodland community and WHO JUST HAPPENS to have a rich young wife well-endowed in the diamond department. Needless to say, Frank then gets up to all kind of mischief and japery regardless of the various interferences of his meddling children, eventually ending up on the run from the local sheriff after convincing everyone he was dying. WHAT A CAPER!
So Frank Langella is amazing. Like amazingly amazing. He manages to pull off the grizzly-loner-turned-cute-old-codger combo with aplomb and dignity, never once making me want to go “AWWWWWW, WHAT A CUTE OLD MAN MAKING FRIENDS WITH A MACHIIIINE!”. Beautiful wit and timing lends a heartening realism to the romantic subplot, whilst his cantankerous wiles belie the frustration of a man who used to be great at something but is now deemed a useless and wilting burden on society. The development of his attitude towards Robot is stunning and subtle, hinting at underlying themes of companionship and humanity prevalent in the artificial intelligence debate. Overall, Langella’s portrayal is witty, exciting, engaging, real, poignant, and ultimately uplifting. 10 THUMBS UP.
James Marsden (Princeton yuppie) and Liv Tyler (gap-yah hippie) are both excellent as Frank’s grown children, too busy leading their own lives to take on the responsibility of aging parents. Tyler’s spoilt whine makes completely understandable Frank’s preference to live with a robot. The final father-son conflict between Marsdon and Langella about how Frank’s stretches in prison took him away from his young son was predictable, but displayed with profound sensitivity. There was no insincere fairytale reconciliation between the two, just an admission of Frank’s failings as a man and a father. Susan Sarandon is charming, if a little unremarkable, as Frank’s love interest and the film boasts a plethora of exceptional supporting roles. From Jeremy Strong as the pretentious yuppie Jake (“you’re so square you’re practically avant-garde!”), to Jeremy Sisto as the earnest Sheriff, to the queen of hilarious bit-parts, Ana Gasteyer, as the shoplady who utters the immortal line: “Did you take a fizzy bath bomb, you son of a bitch?!”. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Robot. Voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, Robot lends this film humanity and compassion. Ironic, really, considering the fundamentally inhuman qualities that define Robot as a robot…
The ending to Robot & Frank should remain underwraps, but suffice it to say that it again avoids the pitfall of over-sentimentalising, allowing Frank a final two fingers to the society of shallow wealth he’s spent his life resisting. Whilst remaining genuinely funny and entertaining throughout, with some unexpected twists along the way, Robot & Frank manages to raise some interesting points about the aging process and the place of men like Frank within our rapidly developing society. It also provides a thoughtful glimpse of where our technological innovation may well take us. However, what remains to be explained is why, in an age where all old people have robots, security systems are lax enough to be defeated by a lock-picker. Robot & Frank is genre-defying, genuinely moving, well written, well acted, funny and uplifting with a perceptive message. However, whilst Robot may be able to make a mean lasagne, he would be absolutely slaughtered on Robot Wars. GO CHAOS II.