A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2012

ROBOT AND FRANK jjj

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

Directed by Jake Schreier / Written by Christopher D. Ford

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.  

Oh…and 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 young man. 

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 afterthought.  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. 

Langella is 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.

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