Robot & Frank
Directed by Jake Schreier
Any mediocre film can be saved if you add a robot or a ghost. Why? Because you can never trust a ghost or a robot; there's always some reason to be apprehensive about them—some underlying potential for evil. The suspense this elicits is curiously exploited in Robot & Frank, a film that focuses on our connection to technology as extensions of our community and ourselves. It downplays the technology fetish of its science-fiction premise to zone-in on the human element of building a relationship with an inanimate object.
In the not-so-distant future, robots have become a consumer product designed to simplify peoples’ lives. These aren’t Blade Runner replicants we’re talking about; they’re closer to the awkwardly lo-fi birthday robot that Rocky gives Uncle Paulie in that absurd scene in Rocky IV. A new prototype is designed to take care of the elderly, providing companionship while spouting self-help slogans like a tiny Tony Robbins made of steel.
Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone in a quiet town outside NYC, struggling to keep a daily routine in retirement as his memory starts showing signs of his age. Exasperated by the responsibilities of checking up on his father, Frank’s son (James Marsden) decides that a robot companion is a better alternative for his father than a nursing home. Before we know it, we have a grumpy old man and a bright, shiny new robot sharing a roof. The robot takes care of all the domestic tasks that Frank has ignored for years, simultaneously implementing a healthy diet and a schedule full of activities. This is the stuff that cult sitcoms are made of.
Trust becomes a central factor, as Frank builds a relationship with the robot, a gizmo with the cool self-assuredness of Hal and the obedient loyalty of the T-1000. As their bond strengthens, the film takes an ingenious turn: it becomes a heist movie, and a good one at that. Frank, a former cat-burglar, plots capers with his robot throughout their sleepy little town. The aging Frank is reinvigorated by the thrill and purpose that his illicit profession brings, even if his memory fails him. He finds a friend in his robot, whom he molds into the perfect accomplice. It’s sort of like Vertigo, if Vertigo were about being old and stealing diamonds with a robot.
There is no evil self-awareness, no robot insurrection, no existential robo-grief—this is a story about the human need for companionship, which is why Robot & Frank is a perfect family movie without trying to be. We’re spared the sappy, pre-packaged sentimentality. Absent as well are the obvious jokes and smug winks at popular culture. Instead, we have a story that takes place in a future relatable to us by the honesty of the characters’ emotions. The film’s sci-fi future is a lot like our present, a world where we spend more time with our gadgets than with our friends and family. The premise might sound ridiculous, but the end-result is well-crafted and heartfelt. Just imagine—a world where Siri is the one asking the questions.
Opens August 17