The last independent sci-fi film to deal with loneliness was the excellent Moon, with a star-turn from Sam Rockwell and directed by first-timer Duncan Jones. In not too dissimilar circumstances, Robot & Frank is an equally impressive debut from Jake Schreier, with Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) as the notable lead. This, however, deals with the issue of Alzheimer’s, as well as the themes of friendship, companionship and family.
Set sometime in the near future, Frank is a retired cat burglar who lives alone in upstate New York. He is visited every week by his highly-strung son, Hunter (James Marsden), and video called regularly by his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). Worried about his overall health, Hunter brings a robot helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to aid Frank which, although reluctant at first, slowly warms to him.
As Frank’s lifestyle is gradually changed to improve his body and mind, he also attempts to woo the local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). But old habits die hard, and he soon realises that the robot can revive his cat burgling days. Pinpointing a wealthy neighbour as his mark, the odd couple form an unlikely team, and more importantly, a friendship and bond which no-one thought possible.
The film has a fairly lightweight feel to it but nevertheless shows some nice comic touches, engaging interplay and humorous lines, one being an in-joke about robots from Frank – “that thing’s gonna kill me in my sleep!” Much like Robot to Frank, this film grows on you. He may be a cranky old man, but his forward, persuasive persona is effectively balanced by Robot’s monotonous placidity and together they make an endearing double-team.
Frank Langella puts on a critically-acclaimed performance that displays the ambiguity of Frank’s actions through his dementia perfectly. Peter Sarsgaard, doing his best impression of Kevin Spacey’s robot in Moon, contributes to the warm chemistry between them, while James Marsden and Liv Tyler provide gamely support as his nagging children (although the constant whine of “daddy” from Tyler is like watching Armageddon all over again). The underused Susan Sarandon is always a joy to watch.
It’s not just the acting that shines, but also the setting. The simplicity in the production makes the future-set appearance very real and believable, from the video calling to the actual robots. Credit to Schreier for these subtleties, and if you can’t shake the feeling of the Robot just being a person in a suit, stay during the credits to see how and why this appearance was chosen.
What stops this from being an almost perfect film is that there is very little substance to the main issues at play. There’s no real deep look into Frank’s problem or the resolution of his own character flaws that has separated him and his family. The ending – and there is a bit of twist (we all love those, don’t we?) – wraps up everything a little too nicely.
However, this is an unexpected surprise; Robot & Frank is a warm-hearted and charming comedy-drama, with excellent performances and a tangible look at the future. There won’t be too much food for thought, but it will almost certainly leave you with a smile on your face. Robot creates the outer appeal, but it’s Frank that supplies the heartbeat.
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