[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Robot & Frank opens in limited release today.]
Not even ornery old men can resist the lure of a special robot friend. Robot & Frank‘s hook is in its title, but it goes beyond what could have been the premise for a weekly sitcom. Instead, the film puts together a strong juxtaposition between a man who’s started to forget everything and a robot who can remember anything. It’s a familiar story about memory being tied to personality, but Robot & Frank throws in the importance of teaching and passion as a way to keep remembering (if only for a little while longer). With the exception of a confused epilogue, director Jake Schreier and screenwriter and Christopher D. Ford have managed to build a warm, funny, and charming movie around a thoughtful premise.
The film is set in the near future, a time when we’ll have thinner cell phones, QR codes on our license plates, and robots. Frank (Frank Langella) is in the early stages of dementia and in the advanced stages of denial and not giving a shit. He keeps getting confused, his house is a mess, and he keeps stealing trinkets from a small store near his home. His frustrated son Hunter (James Marsden) gives Frank a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help the old man in his daily chores, and improve his mental health through diet, routine, and activities. Frank has a particular activity in mind: returning to his days as a cat burglar. His shoplifting, as it turns out, is a way to keep his passion alive, but when the robot comes along, Frank sees an opportunity to plan a much bigger score.
Combining an old thief with a helper robot may have been painfully contrived, but Schreier and Ford make the premise work by fleshing out Frank as a character and believably (if a bit predictably) developing his relationship with the robot. While Schreier and Ford have built a convincing world and story, Langella is the one who makes it come alive. It’s no surprise an actor of Langella’s immense talent can earn the audience’s sympathy even when he’s being a jerk to his son and daughter (Liv Tyler). The film is particularly heartwarming as we Frank grow more attached to the robot, but the performance hits hard when we see him struggle with his fading memory.
He knows the robot is his caretaker, but he wants a friend, and, more importantly, a way to get back to his former life as a burglar. Before he meets the robot, his mind is like quicksand. The more he wants his old life back, the more he forgets. The robot is his path back to when he was passionate and useful. Frank comes alive when he’s planning and executing his heist. These scenes are a little goofball (the robot has to wear a black cloak since his casing is white) but it’s all in serve to remind us that Frank is having fun again.
Robot & Frank is honest enough to know that you can’t reverse dementia, but the way it tries to come to this conclusion is poorly told. For a film that’s smart enough to have Frank try and steal a copy of Don Quixote (Frank being Quixote to the Robot’s Sancho Panza), it doesn’t know quite how to end. So as to avoid spoilers, the epilogue rests on a moving moments that creates an illogical character development.
It’s important to stick the landing, but Robot & Frank is an absolute joy until it stumbles. The future world does rest on some conveniences (they always do since we question why one technology is advanced but others aren’t), but they go by mostly unnoticed because Schreier, Ford, and Langella always remember to let the world serve the characters and to let the characters win us over. Also helping to win us over: robots that want to help us rather than kill us.
Rating: 8.8 out of 10