Robot & Frank, opening this Friday in limited release, is an odd film. A blend of science fiction, comedy, and drama, the movie focuses on an aging cat burglar with dementia — played with subtlety by Frank Langella. Sometime in the near future, the titular Frank spends his days wandering into a small upstate New York hamlet, casually shoplifting from the local cosmetics store, and flirting with the head librarian (Susan Sarandon) of a branch destined for reconstruction. His nights are occupied with reliving (and trying to recreate) the robberies of his youth.
Frank is a mess, and so is his house. His two distant, grown children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) battle over his care when the former decides to gift Frank with a helper robot that will clean, cook, and force Frank into a routine. It's that, or off to the Memory Center for Frank — a new term for retirement home.
If this is the future, you wouldn't know it at a glance — and that works to the film's advantage. There are new, transparent smartphones, video phone systems that answer on voice command, and of course the robot helpers, but director Jake Schreier downplays any sense of the sea-change future that I think has worn thin its welcome in modern movie houses. This is the future the iPhone made: iterative, subtle, surprisingly human.
And no part of that future is more human than Robot, voiced by the deadpan, nasally Peter Sarsgaard, who manages to give a sad spark of life to a device that has no face, emotions, or motivation beyond keeping Frank healthy.
The gruff, combative Frank pushes both Hunter's and the robot's help away, but there's a kind of acceptance even in Langella's protestations. Frank's a prideful old man, but the movie constantly toys with what we don't see or don't know about him, and Langella gives slow, muted depth to the character. It's a fine, endearing performance — a curmudgeon to root for.
At first, the robot is little more than a worrywart maid — cooking, cleaning, and hurrying Frank along from place to place. He wants Frank to start a garden, but Frank is from another time, when men were men, women were women, and everyone's cellphone wasn't see through. Frank needs something bigger to sink his teeth into. He needs to commit a robbery.
The best moments of Robot & Frank happen when Frank is allowed to reminisce and regale, when the robot is not a robot, but a drinking buddy, a partner, a companion. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud lines as Frank and his new lockpick plan and execute their crimes, and some real emotion later in the film which thankfully stops short of tugging on heartstrings.
The movie is not perfect. There is a revelation midway through the storyline and then another towards the end that both require a healthy suspension of disbelief — a bit of a disappointment considering how real this world seems. But the film is warm, funny, beautifully shot, and handled with the kind of care and patience Robot seems at (virtual) pains to offer Frank.
It's also one of the few movies I've seen where the future is not a dystopic nightmare, 3D-generated phantasmagoria, or otherwise unbelievable peek into a not-too-distant hellworld. It's future that seems real, palpable, and just around the corner — one where we have to figure out not just what our technology will do to us, but what it will mean to us.