Robot and Frank is a remarkable testament to the power of keeping things simple, with such a strong singular grain of an idea there’s nothing to hide behind, no magic tricks or obfuscation, just powerful comedic and dramatic performances and pitch-perfect pacing. From love to friendship, parenthood and the responsibilities that all entail, Robot and Frank manages to be touching and honest without sacrificing humor and intellect.
In the near and believable future, Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired jewel thief, who lives alone but is cared for by his son (James Marsden) and checked on via videophone by his daughter (Liv Tyler). Frank leads a simple life, walking into town to visit the soon-to-be-closed library and the beautiful librarian (Susan Sarandon), picking up food at the market, shoplifting small objects from a foo-foo beauty store that used to house his favorite restaurant. Frank’s son decides that what Frank needs is a robot care-taker (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), to help him around the house and keep an eye on him. Robot soon sets cranky Frank to rights, with an orderly schedule and a proper diet and exercise. Frank grows accustomed to Robot and soon begins to train the robot to assist him in a heist or two, targeting a wealthy, uppity young man (Jeremy Strong) who seeks to change the library into some kind of creative “space.” When Frank comes under suspicion for the duo’s crimes, Frank’s family and the law (Jeremy Sisto) are bewildered and it quickly becomes man and robot against the modern world.
Robot and Frank is gentle, charming, and surprisingly quite funny, the script by Christopher D. Ford leaves plenty of room for Frank Langella to work, his magnificent face communicating volumes and the subtlety of his performance could suffice as a master acting class, worthy of study by the bevy of up-and-comers who skate by on bravado alone. James Marsden and Liv Tyler are sad little mirrors to the darker moments of our own selfishness, all at once terrified of the passing of our parents and bored and too busy with our own lives. Susan Sarandon’s performance as the librarian is beautiful, her graceful care and admiration for Frank evident throughout. Robot and Frank’s relationship is just a lot of fun to watch. It seems impossible, but the two have such a dynamic chemistry that balances the gentle chiding and relentless positivity of Robot against Frank’s cynicism and con-man mentality. Peter Sarsgaard’s voice has never been more moving, and Robot becomes more than a necessary accomplice to Frank, he becomes a dear and reliable friend in a world that becomes ever more confusing and foreign. This beautiful world isn’t filled to the brim with future-tech either, director Jake Schreier has made it all just plainly futuristic enough to be believable, with libraries disappearing and technology serving mankind even more fully.
This film will be difficult for anyone who has experience with a loved one suffering from dementia. As Frank irritably falls further and further from the self that his family recognizes, it becomes harder for them to understand and care for him. Watching someone you love get older, especially as we get older ourselves, can be incredibly devastating, and Frank has consistently chosen himself and his work over his children which adds another layer to their concern.
If Robot and Frank falters anywhere, it’s near the end, a pat Terrence Malick-y Tree of Life-looking dementia band-aid placed over the lifetime of problems that Frank’s selfish behavior caused. The moment is clearly meant as a kind of quiet benediction, a persistence in the belief that there can be healing and redemption for all. Would that familial relationships were solved so simply, with dementia pleasantly transforming difficult family members into patient and friendly strangers. After all, it’s so much easier to be kind to strangers. Instead, the disease robs us of those we love and know, changing the familiar and well-worn grooves of relationship into an unknowable and frightening landscape where every new turn upsets us further, and there is often no way back to reality.
There’s a big movement in these modern times to salve over pain by recklessly announcing that we, somewhat conveniently, choose our own families. But many of us must also choose the families we were born into, sprawling and messy though they are, vowing endlessly to do better when it comes to be our turn. Robot and Frank is a remarkably prescient film, cleverly peering into the future while remaining absolutely faithful to human nature and the various facets of relationship that affect us all.