Very charming but very slight, Robot & Frank is a movie about an old man named Frank played by an old actor named Frank (Frank Langella), in which both the character and the actor prove that they have unexpected resources. Created by first-time director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford, it’s a sort of budget sci-fi story crossed with a tale of progressive dementia, and, over all, it suffers from conceptual fuzziness: a comedy that is not quite funny; a serious allegory about aging that is hard to take seriously.
In compensation, there is yet another great Frank Langella performance in what is becoming a habit for the senior actor. He plays Frank Weld , a former jewel thief living in a rambling country home. His yuppie son (James Marsden) insists that he either accepts a new health-care robot or be sent to the “memory centre” for treatment. The robot, which is as tall as a small adult or a large child (dancer Rachael Ma inside a robot suit), is apparently made of white plastic with a globe for a head and no facial features. It speaks in a mellifluous male voice (Peter Sarsgaard) that suggests its programmers watched a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The central delight of the film is watching Langella interact with this semi-animate object, a performance that makes you think that you would really enjoy watching him onstage, where he has had a much more illustrious career than in film. Only in the past decade has he emerged as an important film presence, taking on rich roles (Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon and an aging novelist in Starting Out in the Evening) and knocking them out of the park with his combination of dignity and vulnerability. In Robot & Frank, he adds a couple of new dimensions to his repertoire, as a crank and a scoundrel.
Langella, slipping into New Joisey gangsterese, is initially hostile to the presence of this prissy droid, serving him health food and imposing early bedtimes. Eventually, though, he accepts the home cooking and when he discovers its skill set includes petty theft, he gets excited. Here is the perfect assistant to return to his life of crime: casing joints, picking locks and helping with getaways. The robot, programmed to help Frank find a meaningful hobby, goes along, but what can the old man possibly want or need?
In screenwriter Christopher Ford’s slightly futuristic world, the erasure of memory is more than just a biological problem, it’s a new agenda. Frank likes to go to the library, where the books are about to be replaced by a digital archive. The mastermind is a creepy technocrat (Jeremy Strong), who gets off on the wrong foot with Frank by saying to him: “You’re so square, you’re practically avant-garde.”
Frank’s first heist is a vintage edition of Don Quixote, as a present for his favourite librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). For his next job, he turns his eye toward the new library director’s nearby modernist palace and his richly bejewelled lawyer wife.
The secondary characters here seem extremely secondary. As the evil library director, Strong gives a performance that is broad enough to belong to a Will Ferrell comedy. Liv Tyler pops up as Frank’s daughter, a globehopping hippie do-gooder who opposes the use of robot servants. The son (Marsden) appears only at the beginning and end of the film, while Jennifer the librarian stares at Frank with a puzzling, affectionate saucer-eyed adoration.
Much of Robot & Frank is (frankly) resistible, including the climactic narrative twist, but there is also a likeable oddness that transcends the sentimental contrivance. One could easily imagine the entire story as a one-man stage play about Frank’s senescent delirium, in which he imagines that robots have taken over. Or, to put it another way, the movie’s so square, it’s almost avant-garde.