It seems like almost every septuagenarian actor is required to do at least one “grumpy old man” movie role in which its pretty typical for such a character to go from a cranky and surly old coot to a smiling, kindly grandfather with a young heart by the end of the film. Thankfully, in Robot and Frank director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford, with a great performance by Frank Langella, find a way around that cliche by sticking the grumpy old man with… a robot pal.
Set in “the near future,” Frank (Langella) is one of those cranky old men who is affable in his demeanor for two reasons, both which set this character apart from typical “grumpy old men” characters: first, he is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and second he is a former jewel thief who still feels compelled to shoplift trinkets because it’s all that he can do at this point. To help with the first problem, Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) gives his father a robot caretaker (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), which Frank is initial opposed to using (Langella’s “Oh, fuck this shit” in regard to the healthy meals the robot prepares is priceless). However, Frank soon bonds with the robot by teaching it all of his old burglary tricks. What follows is alternately exciting, funny, and heartbreaking as Frank embraces his former life feverishly while occasionally stopped by moments of confusion.
One of the aspects I loved about the film is that even though it is set in the “near” future a lot of the technology recalls our vision of what the future was going to be like circa the 1980s. For example, Frank’s videotelephone is straight out of the 2015 scenes in Back to the Future Part II, and Robot recalls the birthday gift Rocky gives Paulie in Rocky IV. In addition, the library robot’s voice is a dead ringer for the voice of an old Speak & Spell (as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial made famous). These little touches, as well as Langella’s witty reactions to having a robot around, adds levity to a film that would’ve probably been a depressing aging drama if it were robot-less.
The film’s biggest flaw is its antagonist, Jake (Jeremy Strong), a “yuppie” Frank despises for buying the local library that he loves in order to make it more hip. Jake is immediately condescending and spiteful of Frank for reasons that aren’t clear, and though Strong can do irritating quite well it’s all laid on a little thick. The rest of the cast does so well with their parts — particularly Susan Sarandon as the librarian who is the target of Frank’s affection — that Strong sticks out. Even Liv Tyler, who hasn’t had a good part in years, holds her own as Frank’s distant altruistic daughter who is anti-robot, revealing an underlying theme of whether or not humanity is becoming too dependent on the gadgets that consume our lives these days.
At a brisk 90 minutes, Robot & Frank is a moving, fun film that deals with some important themes about aging and dependency without becoming heavy-handed or preachy. While I don’t think Robot will join the ranks of the iconic film robots, the little guy has undeniable screen presence and conveys a lot more emotion with just its voice than the entire cast of most reality shows. It all makes for a film that’s a lot more mainstream than the quirky plot suggests, and it’s definitely worth a look this summer if it gets a release in your area.