Robot & Frank
Director(s): Jake Schreier
Writer(s): Christopher D. Ford
Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto and Jeremy Strong
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Aug 24, 2012 -
Set in the near future, Robot & Frank tells the story of a retired cat burglar (Frank Langella) whose memory is starting to go. His house is messy, his milk bad, and his only friend in town is Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the librarian in a library a wealthy technocrat wants to turn into a “virtual library experience.” His son, Hunter (James Marsden), gets Frank a caretaker robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Though Frank initially objects, he soon realizes that Robot’s programming — to make Frank active and engage his mind — might make Robot a willing partner-in-crime.
Robot & Frank combines a touching, emotional story about aging, memory loss and its effects on the family with a light, funny buddy caper film, except in this case one of the family and the buddy in the caper is a caretaker robot.
Frank’s children, Hunter and Madison (played by James Marsden and Liv Tyler) deal with his memory loss in two different ways. Hunter foists Robot on his father, thinking it will absolve him of the distance and guilt he feels, while the do-gooder Madison puts thousands of miles between her and her dad in an attempt to keep her from physically facing his deterioration. This physical and mental distance means that Tyler and Marsden are only briefly in the film, though their contributions do illustrate the ways that children differ in dealing with their aging parents.
The real heavy lifting then falls to Langella, Sarsgaard and Sarandon. This is not a CGI film — the robot here is made physical by dancer Rachael Ma in a little robot suit — and like a small play many of the scenes are between Robot and Frank. The retired thief and his caretaker thrust and parry verbally as Robot cajoles, encourages and even lies to get his charge to lead a better life. The moments that the pair share range from comedic to dramatic and it’s a credit to Sarsgaard that his voice-work makes him feel present in every scene that he shares with Langella. It’s this ability to go from light to dark that reflects the real journey families take when facing mental deterioration: one moment your loved one is lucid, the next they’re heading off to dinner at a restaurant that closed decades earlier.
While Sarsgaard gets as human as a robot caregiver can, Sarandon adds a real humanity as the librarian Frank is soft on and who looks upon him with concern and real affection. Her interactions with Langella are sweet and in an age where science fiction is often thought of as only lasers and spaceships it’s great to see their character studies taking place in a future examination of the human condition.
The story also includes Jeremy Strong as the smarmy technocrat who tells Frank “You’re so square, you’re practically avant-garde” and Jeremy Sisto as the small-town sheriff who’s initially awed by Frank’s big-time criminal past.
Robot & Frank is a quiet film and first-time feature director Jake Schreier, a veteran of shorts and commercials, gives his actors room to explore their characters, penned by Christopher D. Ford. Though the film may get lost in the shuffle of its noisier competition, those who take the time to seek it out will be well-rewarded.