Robot & Frank (2012)
Robot & Frank (2012), the feature film debut of director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford, gives audiences a touching look at what might happen in a near future where intelligent, domestic robots have become a reality. The story follows a retired cat burglar and ex-con named Frank (Frank Langella) who finds his life unexpectedly changed by technology.
Frank lives alone in upstate New York, and like many his age, he just doesn’t know where the time has gone. Well, in his case, there’s a good reason why: with the onset of dementia, he often has trouble remembering where (or when) he is. With Frank becoming more detached from reality, his son Hunter (James Marsden) decides to buy him a service robot.
These robots, which bear more than a passing resemblance to ASIMO, are designed to cook, clean, provide basic medical care, and plan events for their “owner”. The whole thought of relying on a robot sickens Frank, and after days of being bossed around, he decides he needs to go out.
The robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) goes on a walk with Frank, which leads the two of them into town and to one of Frank’s favorite stops, a small bath and beauty shop. Falling back on his old habits, Frank often likes to steal a few small items just for fun. However, on this trip, he ends up getting caught by the shop owner. As he swiftly puts down the item he meant to pocket, the robot picks it up and leaves the store with it. This small act of innocent theft gives Frank an idea that might help him out of his rut.
As time goes on, Frank begins to teach the robot various tricks of the cat burglar trade, like how to pick a lock. The robot quickly proves adept at these skills, so Frank excitedly makes plans to steal a rare copy of Don Quixote from the local library. They succeed in stealing the book without much trouble, so Frank plans a bigger job that entails breaking into the house of his rich hipster neighbors. The robot begins to worry about the probability of the two of them getting caught, but goes along with it anyway.
With his robot by his side, Frank whips through the house and grabs millions of dollars worth of jewelry. His hipster neighbors and the local sheriff soon come sniffing around, knowing that Frank previously spent time in prison for grand theft. Frank then realizes that the information contained in his robot’s memory banks could be used as evidence against him. Soon, he’s facing the dilemma of either wiping out the robot’s memories and ending his new friend’s existence, or going back to jail.
Like any good near-future sci-fi, Robot & Frank extrapolates upon contemporary trends, such as the current movement away from the printed word. In this future, books have become completely obsolete, and Frank’s hipster neighbor buys the local library and converts it into something more akin to a nightclub. He even looks at Frank himself as some sort of retro-chic antique.
The younger generation is also shown to be more flighty and capricious than ever. For instance, there’s Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler), who travels the world to aid the impoverished without a thought of helping her own father. And when she finally does decide to move in with him, she tries too hard and only makes things worse—primarily by switching off the robot just as Frank is planning his next job (she apparently despises the use of service robots on vague moral grounds, and yet is more than happy to rely on one when the work gets too back-breaking).
The performances are good all around, minus a bit of awkwardness from a few of the minor characters (e.g., the hipsters with a bad outlook on life). Frank adds a much needed touch of dry humor that will remind anyone of their own cantankerous dad or granddad. While you feel for the kids who grew up without a father because he was in prison at the time, and who now have to care for someone they hardly know, you can’t help but sympathize with Frank’s plight and root for him to get away with his crimes.
There’s also a slight bit of romance between Frank and the head librarian (Susan Sarandon), and there’s a twist towards the end involving her character. While it’s a pretty surprising twist, absolutely nothing comes of it. I think the film would still be almost exactly the same without this third-act revelation.
Although the story is compelling and more original than your typical sci-fi film, it still seemed to lack a certain spark. Frank is mostly communicating with an emotionless robot, which tends to lead to some pretty bland scenes. And you’d expect a little more action during the burglary scenes, but they all go off without a hitch.
This produces a rather laidback vibe, which makes sense given our main character is basically in a haze, existing in a limbo between reality and whatever memory he’s reliving at the time. But overall, the film doesn’t really command your attention and ends up being a pleasant watch that’s not all that memorable.
The one element in this movie that really makes it stand out is the relationship that forms between Frank and the robot. We get a believable shift from Frank being annoyed with the machine, to befriending the robot, to the robot almost becoming his surrogate son. Frank bonds with the robot, not just because it’s helping him carry out his burglaries, but because he sees it as a second chance at what he missed out on with his own kids.
If you’re looking for hardcore science fiction, Robot & Frank probably isn’t the film for you. But it has enough depth, feeling, and dry humor to be a satisfying viewing experience.