The great Frank Langella plays an ageing crook who gets saddled with a robotic BFF.
Increasingly, children of the ageing population are finding it hard to look after their parents as they grow old. What if technology could conceive of a friendly robot carer to do the grunt work? Would this be a promised land of human development or a dystopia to rival Philip K Dick’s nightmares? Can we trust an innovation that would make the plot of Michael Haneke’s Amour entirely obsolete?
The implicit introduction of these socially profound questions is where Robot & Frank peaks. It’s a film that could have mined the deep issues of our times, but rapidly reveals itself as an odd-couple drama that mooches along at an amicable pitch but never delivers a pay-off for the high-concept-hungry.
For fans of the mighty Frank Langella, there are consolations: his character, also Frank, is a grumpy ex-con who still dabbles in his former profession as a thief. Frank lives by himself in sunny suburbia with only his troublesome memories for company.
Instead of focusing on dreary reality, he sets his sights on shoplifting tat from a psychotically suspicious shop-owner and bullishly flirting with friendly librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Langella, with his gruffness and big, begging eyes, makes Frank feel like a spirited old warhorse fending off the knacker’s yard by force of will.
Into this microcosm comes Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden), screeching up in his car with an IGC60L robot to foist upon his father as an antidote to the guilt he feels at having a life somewhere else. He screeches off again and Frank is left with a child-sized hunk of white chrome that fills in as cook, personal trainer, therapist and buddy.
Peter Sarsgaard voices Robot, a character who fills in as our passport to seeing the softer side of Frank. The scenes where they get to know each other – Frank providing tidbits of telling information in response to functionally intelligent questions – are strangely poignant.
It’s certainly engaging to watch his defences come down, yet it’s also disconcerting to see the physically imposing Frank unburdenin himself to a tiny piece of technology. Screwball comedy is unlocked when Frank learns his little friend hasn’t been programmed to abide by federal law. As plan-hatching and capers ensue, it’s refreshing to encounter an android not imbued with HAL 9000 levels of innate malevolence. Where the film comes undone is the place where these two enter into the outside world.
Frank’s relationship with Jennifer doesn’t ring true and grown-up kids Hunter and Madison (Liv Tyler) never feel anything more than a whining and unsympathetic chorus of clichés. There is a delicious role for Jeremy Strong as the pair’s nemesis, but him aside, the abounding subplots diminish the two central performances with their silliness.
There’s a great film to be made about the capacity of technology to help address loneliness, but here it’s just an elaborate red herring. Once the futuristic window dressing is stripped away, Robot & Frank is a muddle of comedic and dramatic themes with a good heart in its two leads.
Edgy technological themes and Frank Langella.
System error. Please reboot.
Robot and Frank were electric. The rest? Sheepish.