An ex cat-burglar with a quickly fading memory, Frank (Frank Langella), is gifted one humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), by his son Hunter (James Marsden) tasked with bettering a resistant Frank’s declining mental and physical health.
Set in the near future in Cold Spring, New York, — where nearly the only discernable difference from the present day is the existence of robots in the workplace and at home — Robot & Frank unfolds before a backdrop of lush greenery. This juxtaposition of technology and nature minimizes the anticipated dramatics of introducing such a futuristic mechanical device. The robot thus seems to be a sensible, practical presence in an ever-modernizing world — not some futuristic jump to sleek flying vehicles, Jetsons fashion or chrome surfaces.
Robot & Frank is not about robots and tomorrow, but about all of the todays it takes to get there. It’s about aging and friendship, and in that sense Robot & Frank proves an interesting counterpoint to its setting and time. From the maturation of the robot’s vegetable garden to the degradation of Frank’s memory, from the time necessary to pick a lock to the that which is necessary to establish a friendship, the film is a comment on the nature of time — an observation of deterioration and advancement, of how some things end and how others may last forever.
Though Frank is initially opposed to his new baby-sitter robot, he is worrisome his son will send him to a nursing home. Alas, he begrudgingly accepts its presence. Frank and his robot’s relationship begins as a rich power struggle between an authoritative service-machine and the curmudgeonly Frank. The machine nags the old man to eat his steamed cauliflower and engage in regular physical activity; alas, Frank is disinclined. The sparring develops into nothing less than a fully-fledged friendship, a bond that is fortified when Frank learns that the robot similarly lacks concern for the law.
With the robot’s urgings for Frank to incorporate more exercise into his daily routine and Frank’s growing distaste for Jake (Jeremy Strong), a pretentious-vocabulary-spouting, artsy-laden yuppie employed in renovating the local library, Frank naturally opts for a more lucrative mode of aerobics — theft. Frank’s expertise as a stealthy breaker-and-enterer coupled with the robot’s ability to crack locks in a fraction of the time it would take a human, mechanically attempting every code option without tire, make the duo the perfect partners in crime.
Together the two thoughtfully plan and execute their jewel heist — with the glossy white robot humorously clad in a long black cape — and simultaneously forge a friendship of trust and unlikely love. Their relationship is perhaps best exemplified by their honest, subtle and humor-tinged exchanges. “You’re starting to grow on me,” Frank says, to which the robot responds, “It’s time for your enema.”
Langella brilliantly carries the film, a hodgepodge of science fiction and buddy comedy that could have just as easily teetered on the fringes of a preachy, saccharine mess, but instead with Langella’s beautifully understated and silently strong performance, danced artlessly into smart indie-whimsy.
As Jake and local law enforcement grow suspicious of Frank and the robot, the pair ensue a succession of elusions. Though well-executed, their jewel heist is free from err with the exception of the robot’s memory, which documents every instance of sensory input. Thus without the robot’s memory washed, corroboration remains — as can their friendship.
Robot & Frank does sometimes misstep. Though Frank’s memory gaffes are for the most part believable, one often wonders how Frank can so quickly leap from a sly and deft “second-story man” to consistently asking his now-adult son “How’s Princeton?” — a university he’s long since graduated from.
The film sometimes also feels just shy of truly deep emotional impact. More than once the audience is led to the precipice of emotional poignancy, one of those profoundly and heartbreakingly naked kinds of beauty, only to have it melt away just shy of the heart-wrenching zenith.
Despite its hiccups, Robot & Frank proves to be a charming indie comedy-drama held afloat primarily by excellent performances by its stars. Robot & Frank is a subtlety affecting and guilelessly charming film that, refreshingly, doesn’t try harder than it needs to. It’s a quirky play on time and friendship — and mostly timeless friendships.