Not many films can present great things from very little. Robot & Frank is one of them. You have to go all the way back to Johnny-5 from Short Circuit 2 (perhaps with the exception of Wall-E) to find a movie robot with artificial intelligence that isn’t only dramatically compelling, but hugely entertaining and exceptionally witty. However it isn’t simply enough for a robotic character to function and recite perfectly adequate answers – it’s how it interacts with the people surrounding it. When waiting for his owner Frank outside of the library, the Robot is being curiously probed by young boys. “Warning. Do not molest me,” the Robot says. “Next time,” suggests Frank, “Say – self destruction countdown initiated,” – a tip Robot uses later on in the film with hilarious results.
‘Sometime in the near future’, Alzheimer’s is creeping up on retired cat burglar Frank Weld (Frank Langella) who finds it very difficult to remember people and places in his local town. His son Hunter (James Marsden) pays weekly visits but is saddened his father’s condition isn’t getting any better. To assist him, Hunter presents a healthcare aide model VGC-60L, or simply referred to as Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), that can cook, clean and help Frank to regain his mental health – but Frank doesn’t like Robot one bit. “Back off you little astronaut bastard,” he says, after being force fed a diet of healthy vegetables and taking up gardening to stimulate his brain.
Regular visits to his local Library and flirting with the librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) is the only thing keeping Frank sane however even this is being taken away from him. Jake (Jeremy Strong), a young entrepreneur, has bought out the library wishing to upgrade the paperback, romantic atmosphere into a modern, digital environment. Jennifer laments at the thought of losing the library and hopes to preserve an original paperback copy of Don Quixote. Frank wishes he could help in someway and it isn’t until an encounter in a soap store that he sees Robot differently, who confirms he doesn’t hold any morals when it comes to stealing. “We’re going to clean up,” says Frank, after training Robot to pick locks and avoid in-house security systems, and celebrates an alternative cerebral stimulant to gardening – a heist partner. But while the Robot begins to grow on Frank and their relationship evolves with humour, trust and loyalty – it all comes at a price when the local police investigate the disappearance of some expensive jewellery belonging to Jake and his wife.
Let’s start with the negatives: there are none. This film is absolutely brilliant. It asks many challenging questions, then attempts to answer the relevant ones but leaves the audience to deal with the open ones. For a start, Christopher Ford’s screenplay is stupendously simple and yet devastatingly brilliant. The film opens like a heist movie, a man carefully picks a lock and enters a home without disturbing the owners only to realise Frank has broken into his own home. It lays the foundation of a fragile character who doesn’t know who he is at the start but eventually does with the assistance of a none-organic life form… sort of. Frank’s memory plays a larger role then originally anticipated, revealing the tragedy of his lonesome life and explaining his hostility towards everyone around him.
Not since Frost/Nixon has Langella been challenged with a role that requires a special kind of decorum that works beautifully when partnered with Robot – who steals every scene he’s in. The design of Robot was inspired by Honda’s ASIMO which lacks any recognisable facial features, instead having a black glass screen for a face. The pairing is odd for many reasons: Frank is retired, old fashioned, vulnerable, self-destructive and a terrible father while Robot is new, intelligent, calculative, moral (somewhat!) and above all – caring. It’s not meant to work… but does. All of this despite Langella not hearing Sarsgaard’s voice until he viewed the fully polished film.
The supporting cast all play their respective roles very well from Sarandon as the naive librarian hoping for the best when the library books disappear to Frank’s optimistic daughter Madison, played by Liv Tyler, who video-phones in from her travels in Turkmenistan and of course Strong as the disgruntled victim, hungry to put Frank behind bars. Their roles are very small, which is good, as it means more screen time between the Robot and Frank. All of this however is great credit to first time feature director Jake Schreier who ensures every scene has something intriguing and fresh to observe. The result is a warm, throughly captivating feature that will be long remembered.
Ok. So there is a negative. It isn’t clear what genre/category this film fits into. Coming of age? Science fiction? Comedy? A heist movie? Bro-mance? However… when you see Frank telling Robot, “You’re starting to grow on me,” and he replies, “Thank you Frank, it’s time for your enema,” – you don’t really care.
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha