Directed by Jake Shreier, Robot and Frank is an independently spirited drama comedy set in the near future. It follows eponymous Frank (Frank Langella) a retired cat burgular, whose deteriprating memory is cause for concern for his son Hunter (James Marsden) who brings him a robot (Peter Sarsgaard) to help around the house. Initially sceptical of the machine, he soon finds that using him to help with burgularies brings the two of them together and when Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) returns from travelling to help around the house, she unwittingly finds herself getting in the way of his plans.
For what is a simple tale of growing old and the problems that come with it, Robot and Frank spreads its creativity in both film-making, acting and near-future technology. Like Minority Report it proposes a world that is similar to ours, but with one or two believable technological advances, such as the increased use of robots, clear-screened mobile phones and automated appliances.
A story of a geriatric with memory problems could easily have descended into sentimentality and clichÃ©, but after the opening scene in which Frank realises mid-burgulary that he has in fact broken into his own home, the film immediately begins to craft its own identity. The scenes of memory failure are played matter of factly and rarely pitied or farcically exploited. The comedy is left then to the relationship between Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard and in these two, Robot and Frank finds its finest moments.
Cleverly highlighting the growing relationship between the two characters, the audience find themselves sympathising at first with Frank’s son Hunter before coming to regard him a worrisome annoyance. Where as Frank’s daughter Madison, beautifully hypocritical and not-so-secretly flakey provides a great counterpoint to Frank’s growing reliance on the robot. In among these is the unusual relationship between Frank and the Librarian (Susan Sarandon). She provides honest conversation and seems to lack any secret agenda or selfish reason to spend time with Frank.
All of these performances a played with a realistic rather than sentimental edge, which helps to provide a suitable supporting cast for the central duo. Despite its originality however, Robot and Frank does avoid the truly harsh study of its characters when needed and offers rather soft resolutions to some of the bigger questions of age and memory. Perhaps fearing that it may lean more toward the Amour-side of this genre, Shreier and his crew offer something closer to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is not bad, but does give Robot and Frank a somewhat uneven final act.
While the ending feels more than a little forced, the interplay between Langella and Sarsgaard is low-key and quite wonderful. As character studies go it is more than a little subversive, although it does seem to pull its punches once too often as it reaches its climax. Robot and Frank is still a charming, enjoyable and quite moving experience, but like its main character you’ll be hard-pressed to remember the detail once its passed.