Set in the near future, a crotchety old geezer on the verge of dementia gets a new lease on life – and revives his career – when he is presented with a robot caretaker.
First-time director Jake Schreier’s vision of the imminent future does not consist of a “Big Brother” dystopian landscape, way-out architecture, revolutionary weaponry, contagious viruses, flying machines, speed-of-light travel, or many of the other innovative trappings we have come to expect of Sci-Fi features. Although he does permit himself some moderate futuristic novelties in the form of wide-screen Skype and sleek electro-cars, they stay well in the background. The action of Sci-Fi, buddy movie ROBOT & FRANK takes place in a world where books are going digital, the libraries are closing (sound familiar?) and where robots perform the menial tasks currently reserved for immigrant workers.
Meet Frank (Frank Langella) – a crotchety old geezer living alone in his house in a rural area of upstate New York. Although he is still able to look after himself after a fashion, and trundle into town to visit the library – to borrow books and have a harmless flirt with Jennifer, the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) – he is clearly descending the slippery slope of dementia.
This dismays his son Hunter (James Marsden) and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), both of whom live too far away to care for their old dad. Looking after him on a permanent basis would be a nightmare in any case. Set in his ways, he just wants to be left alone and, although he no longer really understands the world around him, he is stubbornly resistant to change. Concerned by the decline in his father’s condition, Hunter decides to buy him a home-robot. Appalled by the very idea of an artificial care-giver, once the Robot arrives – about 5ft. tall and looking like a giant i-Pod – his initial annoyance gradually gives way to wary approval. The little guy can do lots of things: it cooks, cleans, shops, does the gardening, forces Frank to take “moderate” exercise and watch his diet – and likewise reveals some hidden talents. It can pick locks and crack safes.
This is where we discover that Frank is, in fact, a retired jewel thief, and quite a notorious one at that – with two longish prison stretches under his belt, albeit the second one was for “tax evasion”, as he disgustedly admits. Before very long, the duo of man and household appliance is virtually inseparable. Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) gives Frank the companionship and stimulus he has been lacking, and also reawakens his enterprising spirit. In short, they soon start doing heists.
There’s a sparkling chemistry between Robot and Frank; the former chirpy, while the latter is morose. Langella’s portrayal of a dementia victim’s anger and frustration with his own defective mind is brilliantly convincing. He can be wayward – when he shoplifts bars of soap from a local vendor, for example, just to drive the shopkeeper mad and keep his hand in. But he’s also isolated and deprived of stimulation. It is delightful to see the improvement he makes – albeit through burglary – as his interest in life and the world around him is rekindled.
An intriguing premise and enjoyable film, which Jake Schreier brings to the screen with gentle irony, humour and restraint. Premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, it has yet to go on general release in the US.
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Stage 6 Films presents: ROBOT & FRANK (USA 2012); German distributor/Release date: Senator Films/October 25th, 2012; Running time: 89 mins; Director: Jake Schreier; Writer: Christopher D. Ford; Cast: Frank Langella; Robot Voice: Peter Sarsgaard, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, James Marsden; Jeremy Sisto; Rated PG-13 (for some language)