A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2012
ROBOT AND FRANK
2012, R, 89 mins.
2012, R, 89 mins.
Frank: Frank Langella /
Robot's voice: Peter Sarsgaard /
Jennifer: Susan Sarandon /
Madison: Liv Tyler /
Hunter: James Marsden /
Jake: Jeremy Strong /
Sheriff: Jeremy Sisto
ROBOT AND FRANK is one of the most peculiar films that I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s also oddly endearing, funny, and enjoyable as a direct result. Featuring the film directorial debut of Jack Schreier and written by Christopher Ford, this is a work of such modest and minimalist energies, shot on a small budget of $2.5 million and over the course of a scant 20 days. The film is difficult to categorize, which only adds to its ethereal charm: it’s part science fiction picture, part social/cultural satire, part family drama, part heist flick, and part Alzheimer’s parable.
it’s also a buddy comedy between a man and his robot butler.
That last part
would usually have many filmgoers balking at seeing ROBOT AND FRANK, but
the resulting film is so assured, rock steady in focus, and impeccably
acted that you are likely to forget the sheer ridiculousness of its very
premise. This is all aided by
the stalwart Frank Langella, a sly fly-in-under-the-radar actor that
often is not cited among the film thespian elite because of how
deceptively low key and understated he has been throughout his lengthy
career. He grounds the
absurdity of ROBOT AND FRANK’s out-there storyline with a warmth, humor,
crotchety playfulness, and – at times – heartbreaking sentiment that
makes the film feel more emotionally resonating and credible for viewers
than it perhaps should be.
The film takes
place in the not-to-distant future, but the filmmakers here don’t waste
time on spiffy and ostentatious visual effects and spectacle to create
their world of tomorrow (which, no doubt, was dictated by their meager
budget). Instead, we get a
subtle, but immersive vision of upstate New York of the future that’s
not too unlike what we see around us today, but with very skinny cars,
large Skype enabled television sets, and high tech mobile phones that seem
completely transparent. Frank
(Langella) lives a hermit-like existence by himself and seems capable of
looking after his own everyday needs as he enters the winter of his life,
but he nonetheless seems to be battling an uphill struggle with dementia.
He’s fully functioning, but becoming alarmingly forgetful,
thinking – for example – that a local business is still a restaurant
that he ate at “just days ago.”
In actuality, the eatery has been closed for years.
Some things seem
to alarm Frank even more than his slow spiral down into Alzheimer’s; he
loves books and likes to visit the local library – partially because he
has a crush on the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Surandon) – but he
despises the fact that all of the books are being replaced by digital
copies (thanks to a slimy software tycoon, Jake, played by Jeremy
Strong). What Frank really
detests, though, is his son (James Marsden) bringing him a new servant to
look after his daily needs. The
servant in question is, yes, a robot (voiced with the cool and detached
intonations of Peter Sarsgaard), a new appliance that Frank does not look
forward to having in his home. “That
thing is gonna murder me in my sleep,” he deadpans at one point.
All the robot
wants to do is serve and protect Frank, making him healthy meals and
placing him on daily exercise plans, which the curmudgeonly old coot does
not really take too. He
just wants to shut the damn thing off, but like most elderly folks with
new-fangled technology…he can’t seem to find an on/off switch.
Interestingly, Frank slowly warms over to the robot as he discovers
- to his delight - that it is capable of doing so many things beyond making
his breakfast and cleaning his home.
Most importantly, the robot has reflexes, timing, and speed that no
human can duplicate, which Frank appreciates.
You see, Frank was once an expert thief/burglar (he did time for
his indiscretions) that could break into just about any home with any
security system. He believes
that if he could teach his robot to pick locks and safes then he will have
a way “back in” to the game that gave him so much sinful pleasure as a
I don’t want to
say too much more about ROBOT AND FRANK, other than to say that for a film
about the improbable relationship between an elderly man and his robot
servant, it still miraculously touches on some sobering themes about aging,
the frailty of the mind and body as one gets older, and how one tries to
reconnect with the past when the past is slowly becoming a hazy
Other special effects heavy sci-fi dramas would have easily
forgotten about the human component of this story, but ROBOT AND FRANK
never really dwells on its portrayal of the future, nor is it nihilistic
about human beings succumbing to high tech artificial intelligence.
I appreciated that this film is not a depressing and dystopian
portrayal of mankind’s relationship with technology, but rather a
mutually reciprocal one.
arguably one of our most quietly versatile of actors; he’s played
Dracula, Skeletor, Richard Nixon, Sherlock Homes and Zorro.
Watching him in ROBOT AND FRANK is to witness a cunning performer
make the most out of the preposterous narrative he sees himself in and
forge ahead by conveying in Frank a man being systematically broken down
by age and disease. The
greatness of Langella’s work here is that he never really plays the role
with a tongue-in-cheek coyness or, for that matter, in broad comedic
strokes. He performs as if he
were in any other normal dramedy, only in this case his companion is made
of metal and circuits. The
fact that Langella makes us care for Frank and his blossoming relationship
with a goofy looking machine is a testament to his strengths as an actor.
With a lesser performer at the helm, ROBOT AND FRANK would have
been a hard-to-swallow farce.
I also like how
the film keeps launching one little surprise after another and the way that
it switches between odd-couple-inspired humor and – later in the film
– heart tugging personal tragedy is an achievement in itself.
That, and Schreier and Ford are shrewd here for rarely try to mock
the world they envision; they opt to evoke a small-scale, but sweeping
credibility in Frank’s futuristic landscape and forge a tangible bond
between him and his highly unlikely and resourceful companion.
The robot may just be a dutifully programmed servant for Frank, but
it fosters and nurtures a bond with him based on loyalty and trust.
Even when Frank’s plan for his next big score seems unethical,
the robot still devotedly remains at his side.
ROBOT AND FRANK
makes a few missteps, like with a largely underwritten role of Frank’s
bohemian and travel-hungry daughter (played kind of blandly by Liv Tyler)
that causes some momentary complications with his heist plans, not to
mention that Jeremy Strong’s obnoxious hipster character is a laughably
one-note and cartoonish protagonist that’s never really a threatening
presence. Yet, I was so won
over by FRANK AND ROBOT that I grew less and less conscious of its faults
and just allowed myself to be taken in by it.
With the wrong frame of mind going it, the film will easily turn
off a lot of cynical filmgoers, but I found that it was cunningly crafted
in the way it both touched me and made me laugh.
For a film about a man afflicted with Alzheimer’s and his
camaraderie with his robotic friend to achieve that deserves merit.