Year: 2012 / 89 minutes
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard (voice), Susan Sarandon
Directed by: Jake Schreier / Written by: Christopher D. Ford
What’s it about?
In the near future, a retired jewel thief reluctantly accepts a gift from his son – a robot butler which has been programmed to look after him.
I came across Robot & Frank purely by accident when browsing for my next rental. I was intrigued by the cover image of Frank Langella gazing into the face of a robot, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before, and being a fan of Langella it was naturally an easy choice.
The story is set – we’re told – in the ‘near future’, precisely when really doesn’t matter but it’s a recognisable world with subtle advancements in already existing technology (voice activated communications/video screens, mobile phones the thickness of a credit card) blending in as an accepted part of everyday life. The most significant advancement though is in the use of robots as assistants in the workplace or for personal needs – an advancement that isn’t too far off today.
Frank Langella is…Frank, former cat burglar, divorced for thirty years and an absentee father having spent time in an out of jail for his crimes. Growing older, Frank is depressed, unsatisfied and becoming increasingly forgetful – although it’s not directly referenced it’s clear that he’s beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s. His daughter Madison (Tyler) is travelling around the world for charitable causes and his son Hunter’s (Marsden) family life is suffering as a result of his frequent visits to his father. Hunter’s concerns for his father’s welfare result in the gift of a robot ‘butler’ (voiced by Sarsgaard), programmed to look after him and improve his health.
Reluctant at first, Frank soon forms an unlikely friendship with the robot who soon becomes his partner in crime as Frank plans to utilise his new pal’s talents to plan and execute a return to his old profession.
Robot & Frank is one of those films that you come across every now and then that just grabs you with its charm. Langella is excellent as always, able to deftly integrate his frustrations and disappointments with subtle drops of humour all into a strong, cohesive performance. Sarsgaard proves the perfect choice as the voice of the robot companion, with his understated robotic delivery that carries just the barest hint of emotion and care that feels programmed yet has a vague human quality (I felt it slightly evoked Douglas Rain’s performance as HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Mention should also go to robot performer Rachael Ma whose simple nuanced movements and gestures marries neatly with Sarsgaard’s dialogue.
The friendship between man and machine plays out extremely well as Frank’s growing acceptance of the robot helps him find a new zest for life, albeit through criminal activities. It feels genuine and evolves from bickering odd couple to a more familial father/son relationship made more poignant by Frank’s regrets at being a lousy father.
The film is well cast with strong chemistry between all of the actors. Robot aside, Marsden gets to reunite with fellow Superman Returns actor Langella but in a much more intimate and significant way as the exasperated son, concerned about his father’s wellbeing. There’s his other dysfunctional relationship with Tyler and the developing attraction between Langella and Sarandon’s librarian, who’s also assisted by a robot – leading to a hilarious ‘conversation’ between the two machines at a party.
Of course, as Frank’s renewed criminal endeavours threaten to come back on him then events become more dramatic yet even with its dashes of melancholia Robot & Frank never loses its heart and its charm, played out through Ford’s smart (and at times witty, with lines like “I would rather die eating cheeseburgers than live off of steamed cauliflower!”) script and solid, simple direction from Schreier provoking strong performances from the cast, particularly Langella. There’s no fancy documentary styling or attempts at kinetic blockbuster style camera movements (nor would there need to be), each scene is left to breath and flow naturally (the moment where Frank and the robot ‘hug’ is particularly well staged) on the smallest possible scale, allowing the viewer to simply sit back and be drawn in.
The bottom line: Robot & Frank is a charming and well-cast film that will draw you in and hold your attention right through to its heartfelt conclusion.
Robot & Frank is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Entertainment One.