Dressed up as a science-fiction film, Robot & Frank is instead a small character study that mostly works.
Frank (Frank Langella) lives in the backwoods of upstate New York in the “near future.” He’s the typical aging curmudgeon who refuses new technology, and who’s memory is failing. He’s also an ex-burglar. His son Hunter (James Marsden) makes the 10 hour round trip every week to check in on his father. While he refuses to acknowledge he may need some assistance, or that his memory is beginning to fade (on Hunter’s first visit he asks how Princeton is, which Hunter graduated from years ago), Hunter is at a loss of what to do. So he decides to get his father a robot assistant. Of course, Frank won’t have any of it. Attempting to change his daily routine, his diet and his entire way of life, really, the robot is there to keep him healthy and to improve his memory. However, when the rundown local library Frank frequents, and whose librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) he fancies, is co-opted by a group of young millionaires who think “books are cool again,” as Jennifer notes, something is reignited in Frank.
Shown an original copy of Don Quixote by Jennifer, one of the more prized possessions of the library, Frank, in a twisted sense of right and wrong, decides to steal it in order to give it to Jennifer. Unfortunately, he has to deal with the robot that won’t stop badgering him about eating better and starting a garden as a hobby. Instead, Frank teaches the robot how to pick locks, saying if the robot wants him to have a hobby to exercise his mind, this is as good as any — and the robot agrees. Slowly Frank is able to convince the robot that his reignited excitement for burglary is similarly as good as anything the robot has suggested. He’s happy, he’s working and he’s keep busy. Again, the robot agrees. And so begins a tale of budding friendship between Frank and his former robot enemy.
It’s a curious, and quite interesting, plot. Man vs. machine is one of the oldest stories in sci-fi but the film does have its own twist on the age old tale. Cliches are joked about, as in the case of a party scene at the library Frank tells the robot to have a discussion with Jennifer’s own helper, to which they’re both confused. Frank then tells them to talk about the robot take over, to similar confusion. It’s subtle but a also refreshing to see a film that acknowledges the fear of technology, mostly through Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) a neo-hippy traveling the world and who thinks the idea of her father having a robot is morally reprehensible, but mostly embraces the idea.
The library burglary invigorates Frank, even if he soon can’t remember why he thought giving the book to Jennifer would be a good idea, until the new buyer of the library Jake (Jeremy Strong) suspects Frank asking “do you wear reading glasses?” Already bitter by the “ironic” takeover of the library by the younger generation he sets his sights on Jake’s wife’s jewelry for his next target. It’s through the “casing” and teaching the robot about what he does, something he oddly laments he could never do with Hunter, that he begins to bond with the robot. But it also may be his undoing.
Voiced by Peter Saarsgard, the robot is probably the most deceivingly complex character of the film. He continuously tells Frank that he is only a robot and does not “exist” in the sense a human does, but Frank, like much of the viewers, begins to see him as more than just an appliance and is unable to not humanize the droid. If there’s anything truly clever about the relationship of man and machine in the film, it’s this. Whereas infamous robots like C3PO and R2D2 are treated the same as any other character (although perhaps they are more sophisticated), Robot & Frank sets out to have the opposite message. No matter how much Frank this this robot is his friend, at the end of the day he’s only a robot and it’s only goal is to make Frank healthier. If that’s through burglary, or having Frank teach it how to burgle, so be it. It’s logical in the strictest sense of the word.
The cast is uniformly fantastic, especially Langella, but Marsden, Tyler, Sarandon and Strong are similarly, ahem, strong even if the film’s greatest enemy is it’s pacing. Despite positing these theories and questions about man vs. machine, it never really dives deep into any of it, keeping most of it on the surface. Ultimately, the film is really about one man’s struggle with age and his own memory. The robot is a manifestation of his issues with memory but Frank refuses to view it that way, instead molding it into his own criminal assistant. The languid pace seems to run against all of these great ideas and instead makes the film feel flat. It feels as if it’s on the same wave length from beginning to end, never rising and never falling, meaning it feels as if it never really takes off. It’s honestly a minor quibble and for first time director Jake Schreier, and first time feature writer Christopher D. Ford, it shows a hell of a lot of promise.