I had heard nothing but great things about this movie, and was still kicking myself for missing a press screening back in December. Fernando had it on his Best of 2012 list, and it’s easy to see why. Frank Langella plays Frank, an aging divorced ex-con, who struggles to get by in a near-future world where his grown-up children have no time to look after him. Frank has begun to show signs of dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s, but refuses to be put in a home. Instead, his son Hunter (James Marsden) gets him a robot to cook and do the housework, as well as monitor Frank’s mental and physical health. At first, curmudgeonly Frank is against the idea, but he soon warms to his new companion and a friendship blossoms.
The ever-reliable Langella is on top form as Frank, creating a nuanced and multi-faceted character from what could have been simply a grumpy old crook. Frank is sympathetic without always needing to be likable. He has issues, a shady past and lacks a strong moral compass. He sees the opportunity to exploit his robot’s strength and precision skills and pull off another heist, and the audience eagerly goes with it, perhaps because Frank’s mark is such a snotty, condescending prick, but mostly because it means that Frank is regaining his marbles and appreciating life once again.
Peter Sarsgaard is perfect as the voice of the robot, bringing a dry wit to its matter-of-fact observations and responses. As one might expect, the robot often shows far more humanity than many of the real people who populate the story. Hunter is too busy being a family man to look after his own father, while his sister Madison (Liv Tyler) is more concerned about being seen to be conscientious of Third World problems than those closer to home. Susan Sarandon’s aging librarian seems happy to flirt with her last remaining patron, and appears to be the only other person in this fast-changing world who still respects the old ways, and takes an immediate liking to Frank.
The first feature film from director Jake Shreier, Robot & Frank was decorated at both Sundance and Sitges last year, and its accolades are thoroughly deserved. The film’s greatest strength is that it never tries to be too profound, keeps its ambitions modest and remembers to have fun with its story. There are parallel themes drawn between Frank losing his mind and the Robot’s ability to record and recall everything, as well as the younger generation’s disregard for history and culture in favour of the new. There is also a sweet, entertaining and incredibly engaging buddy movie in there too, as well as a smattering of romance and family drama.
Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is its ability to address so many themes and issues without ever feeling laboured, and giving a film that sounds ridiculous, even misguided on paper, a genuine heart and soul. Whatever its secret, Robot & Frank is delightful.