Aug 21, 2012
The very first moment of Robot & Frank is kind of a groaner: a title card flashes before the woodlands of upstate New York, informing the audience that the film is set in “the near future.” At once, the golden rule of show-don’t-tell is broken, while the time-sensitive ambiguity of the information can come off as careless and frustrating. But Robot & Frank is for the few of us out there with enough patience to last beyond the initial five-second frame of a movie.
Everything thereafter is wholly impressive, from the engrossing confusion that overtakes the audience when we first meet the on-in-years Frank (Frank Langella), a retired jewel thief struggling with the early-to-mid stages of Alzheimer’s. The story opens with Frank attempting to rob his own house trapped in the motions of his youthful glory days, and at painful odds with his increasing struggles with memory. Frank is alone: his affectionate, flighty daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off traveling the world, only speaking to her father via fleeting video-phone conversations. Frank’s resentful son Hunter (James Marsden, whose only flaw here is that his ever-present charm makes him a little hard to believe as an embittered everyman with daddy issues) visits regularly to check on his father, but brings nothing but malice and judgment. The only company Frank does have is a friendly librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the object of his flirtatious affections. Frank’s regular visits to Jen’s library which is being “reimagined” as a digital, cutting-edge, social-media-incorporating blah blah blah experience help to establish his lasting affection for the woman, as well as the reality of the world in which this story is set. Jennifer, like many in their society, is abetted by a robot associate, who helps to carry out her day-to-day.
It isn’t long into the film before Hunter decides that a caretaker robot would be the right fit for his father; unsurprisingly, this is not an idea to which Frank takes too kindly. At first the highly intelligent android (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) simply insists on feeding Frank a healthier diet, taking him for hikes, and employing the mindful activity of gardening. Frank is interested in none of this except for the robot’s apparent knack for lock-picking. After taking note of Robot’s (he never gets a name) skill, Frank decides to get back in the game: with his knowhow and Robot’s aptitude, the two can really make a run for some high-profile items, like the priceless copy of Don Quixote that the new owners of Jennifer’s renovating library plan on disposing (Frank wants to steal it so that he can give it to her a sweet gesture if it weren’t so misguided). Beyond the monetary gain from this return to action is the first friend Frank has had in years. He shares stories with Robot, relishing in his pal’s unwavering loyalty (he’s programmed that way, after all), but lamenting in Robot’s frequent admissions that he is not actually alive.
Therein lies the heartbreak of the story: the affair of unrequited love. While Frank gradually (and begrudgingly don’t you worry, the process is quite begrudging!) comes to care for and cherish Robot, he is placed with the new struggle of accepting his companion’s lack of ability to reciprocate any truly genuine affection. Robot is there for Frank through anything. He is “instinctually” driven to protect Frank from harm, even if it means sacrificing his own well-being as he understands, he has no being to preserve. And although the self-involved Frank revels in this kind of relationship at first, his love for and friendship with Robot becomes a source of deliberate pain in the film: beyond his shattered relationship with his children and his waning mind, the sorrow is in Frank’s inability to accept that his closest friend is not really there.
As obvious ties can be drawn between this and the tragedy inherent in an Alzheimer’s sufferer grasping at things long gone, the movie also serves as a truly interesting and approachable examination of the science fiction element of artificial intelligence probably one of the best takes on the idea that film has given us in recent years. Capped with a fun, albeit extremely odd, performance by antagonist Jeremy Strong (as the new owner of Jennifer’s library), as well as an always welcome visit from Jeremy Sisto (as a crafty law enforcement officer with eyes on Frank, but don’t worry, the heist motif never overtakes the film to the point of crime-thriller), as well as some genuinely unforeseen turns of events, Robot & Frank is consistently gripping. A rare thing to say about a somber character study. Robot & Frank uses sci-fi as it was created to be used: to say something poignant about the human condition. Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is not at all something you have to be ”into” sci-fi to appreciate; it’s simply a story about friendship and loneliness… something all humans (and some robots) can understand.