That would be Robot, of course, who is forced upon a highly reluctant Frank by his harried son in order to bring order and good nutrition to this aging and forgetful senior citizen. Frank is a handful, no doubt, but as played by Frank Langella there’s a steely intelligence and native cunning still at work in his increasingly confused brain.
The role fits Langella to perfection. Which helps make this sharp, funny yet slightly melancholy comedy from first-time director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford a real pleasure to watch. You know this is just the right actor for the role — someone who will play away from the obvious comedy in search of greater truths about the future and about the aging process.
The film played at LA Film Fest prior to its release by Samuel Goldwyn in late summer.
The film is set in the “near future.” Personal robots are common. And judging from the events in “Robot & Frank,” human interaction among family members may be worse than in present day.
Frank is a retired cat burglar. About the only thrill left to him in his dotage in a secluded, woodsy area in New England is to shoplift carved soaps from a village gift shop. His son (James Marsden), exasperated by weekly travel to tend his mentally deteriorating father, gives him a Robot with no name that is programmed to cook, clean and watch over his dad’s health. Frank strenuously resists and searches fruitlessly for the damn Robot’s off button.
The Robot accompanies on his ambles into town and visits with its librarian (Susan Sarandon), although since no one reads printed material anymore the library is unceremoniously shutting down. Frank gradually grows accustomed to this companionship. And then too, Robot does make tasty meals.
Peter Sarsgaard nicely gives a human-like voice to Robot, which is a clunky-looking white figure with a space helmet for a head and a boxy body. While continuing to remind Frank that he is not human, there are touching notes of concern in Robot’s care-giver voice when urging more physical activity by Frank and less sodium in his diet.
Then the light bulb goes off in Frank’s head. When he realizes no one has bothered to program any moral code into his new robotic friend — and noticed Robot’s extraordinary abilities with things like locks and codes for safes — he conspires with Robot on a good old-fashioned robbery of a nearby neighbor’s home. All is going well until Frank’s anti-robot daughter (Liv Tyler) shows up.
It is most fortunate this was a film made independently rather than by a studio for the latter version would’ve come down hard on robot-human sentimentality and turned the caper into something to rival “Ocean’s 11.” Instead of cranking up such plot points, Schreier and Ford let the comedy emerge naturally from these two “buddies.” What has caused Frank’s mental fog has less to do with aging than with his failure to engage his brain in criminal activities.
Frank comes alive as he cases the neighboring house and scrutinizes the couple’s routines. Even Robot has to admit that planning the robbery is good for Frank’s brain. The fog lifts. But when circumstances dictate that Frank should wipe Robot’s memory to protect his guilty self from police, he hesitates. While rationally he knows Robot is a machine, emotionally he is now friends with his co-conspirator.
Thus the film plays with notions of what friendship means and, for that matter, what family means. There is, as I mentioned earlier, a melancholy note to all this. Frank’s forgetfulness is real enough and no amount of burglaries will stave off the inevitable. There’s also a nice twist regarding the friendly librarian that gives the film greater resonance in these matters.
What is key here is the fine, fine work by Langella. Not once does he play Frank as a victim or ask for audience sympathy. He’s a tough old bird and means to go out his way, not anyone else’s. But that guile has lost its edge. He can return to the scene of a crime without realizing a crime has been committed or by whom. The performance is intimate and richly detailed without any showiness or actorish ticks. It’s a richly human note in a fictional near future where such a quality is increasing devalued.
Venue: LA Film Fest (Samuel Goldwyn) Production Companies: Stage 6 and Park Pictures Features in association with White Hat Entertainment Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong Director: Jake Schreier Screenwriter: Christopher D. Ford Producers: Galt Niederhoffer, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord Executive producers: Danny Rifkin, Bob Kelman, Tom Valerio, Bill Perry, Jeremy Bailor, Ann Porter, Stefan Sonnenfeld Director of photography: Matthew J. Lloyd Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky Music: Francis and the Lights Costume designer: Erika Munro Editor: Jacob Craycroft No rating, 89 minutes