"The human brain, a lovely piece of hardware.”
Jake Schreier won the Feature Film Prize at Sundance in 2012 for this original dramatic comedy and it’s easy to see why. There are few films in Hollywood that deal with aging and when they do they are usually handled in an overly sentimental or poorly manner. By simply looking at the poster alone, I thought I knew what this movie was going to be about: an odd pairing of a grumpy old man refusing to accept the assistance of a robot but who would eventually get to befriend it and accept it. Robot & Frank however was nothing like I expected and the story had a very original premise with a strong central performance from Frank Langella. It also stands out in its depiction of the future, which seems much more believable and approachable than most futuristic dystopian movies. It is a simple movie that approaches the subject of aging in a rather simple but realistic manner.
Frank (Frank Langella) is a former jewel thief who has served time in prison, but is now living on his own in an upstate New York town. His son, Hunter (James Marsden) takes long drives to come visit him during the weekends to check up on him and during one of those visits he brings him a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to assist him. The robot specializes in healthcare, but Frank isn’t too keen about having him around. Not knowing how to shut if off he eventually gives in and allows it to do the chores in the house. During the course of the movie we realize Frank is beginning to have trouble remembering things (showing early signs of dementia), and that is why his family is concerned for him. His daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is a philanthropist who is always traveling to foreign countries but also tries to check up on him when she has a chance. Frank’s robot wants him to begin a new project in order to improve his health and it believes that Frank should take on gardening and establish a daily routine. But Frank has other ideas, he wants to plan for a new heist and he easily convinces the robot that it is a good idea. Susan Sarandon also has a supporting role in this film as a local librarian that Frank frequently visits, but there isn’t much of a romantic arc. The film is basically a dramatic comedy centering on the relationship Frank forms with his robot and how his family deals with his illness.
Langella is the true stand out here and he carries this movie with his solid performance. There were moments were the pacing seemed to drag, but his character simply captivated me and got me through some of those patches. I had some issues with the ending as well, which seemed a bit too neatly wrapped for a film that basically was staying away from genre formulas and conventions for almost its entire runtime. But for a film that centers on a relationship between an old man and a robot it does feel quite fresh in that unlike with most sci-fi films, here there is no conflict as to if the robot will develop a consciousness or not. It never seems to be an issue here and he constantly reminds Frank that he is not alive. This isn’t a man versus machine type of movie, it is more interested in showing how technology can help improve our lives as is the case with Frank, although there are of course dangers implied with it, depending on how we use this technology. The screenplay focuses on that intimate relationship between Frank and his robot, and that ends up being the highlight of this film.