Robot & Frank is an airy, engaging flight of fancy.
It's also part caper film, part character study, and part allegory about aging. Robot & Frank shouldn't work, but it does.
It has the potential to be clanky and clunky, but instead it's ebullient and smooth. Like the clever robot, it's a fine piece of work.
Robot & Frank is the story of Frank Weld (Frank Langella), a retired thief - "a second story man" - who is facing dementia. He lives alone in his house in upstate rural New York.
Frank has severe lapses of memory. He thinks his son Hunter (James Marsden) still is at Princeton, and that his long closed local eatery still is open.
His days are a tired ritual of walking to town, going into a shop where he pilfers soap figures, and visiting an old library, which like him has become dated and faces a new world of technology in which paper books are being transformed electronically.
Hunter, who has to make five hour drives to visit and worries about his dad's deterioration, gives Frank a robot healthcare-aide. The robot has no empathy chip. but is smart and proficient - he is a whiz at cooking and cleaning.
With dispatch he cleans up Frank's dusty, messy house. And he gardens.
At first Frank holds his helper in disdain, but the robot's unflappable attitude eventually gets to Frank, and they begin to compromise. Frank eats fruit and vegetables from the robot's garden instead of his usual Cap'n Crunch.
Frank also has an effect on the robot. The robot has rules, but they are hardly absolute. Ultimately, Frank and the robot become friends.
They become partners in crime, together committing robberies. One robbery is stealing the most valuable book in the library - a beautiful, old edition of Don Quixote.
The authorities close in on the pair, and Frank and the robot have to make a decision about what comes next.
What makes Robot & Frank work best is the wonderful performance by Frank Langella. Even though the bots in his brain are broken, Frank is a thinking man. We witness his struggles etched on his changing expressions.
Time has damaged Frank, but the robot refreshes his spirit and reboots his brain. Because Langella convinces us that Frank believes in the robot, we do too.
Inside the gleaming exterior of the robot - a white spaceman - is dancer Rachael Ma, who gives grace to its body. When Langella, who is circa 6' 3,'' stands beside the robot (the 4' 11'' adult Ma) they make a decidedly odd couple.
The voice of the robot was added after shooting. Peter Sarsgaard replaced Liev Shreiber as voice and reportedly did the dialogue in eight hours.
James Marsden is effective as the dutiful, worried son, but director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford don't prepare his character for the ending. He is an unknown quantity in the crucial finale.
Liv Tyler has an awkward role as Frank's daughter Madison, well-meaning but naive. Madison is a globe-trotting activist - adamantly against robot labor -who comes home to try to care for her addled father.
Director Schreier, who has set the film in the near future, adds a nice touch in that she drives a worn, dented Prius.
Susan Sarandon portrays the librarian who is undergoing very symbolic change in the library.
In a movie in which most of the roles are nicely modulated, one is jarringly overplayed. Jeremy Strong seems distinctly out of place as the creepy consultant who is shoving the library into the future.
Schreier may want Strong to jar, but he is annoying - not only as a character, but as an actor. He effects a drastically different tone than the rest of the movie. Is the future going to be that obnoxious?
There are a few glaring omissions - e.g., why didn't the law follow up on Frank's glasses? Schreier hasn't earned the tolerance we give Hitchcock.
It's clear that Schreier and Ford didn't want to personalize the robot with a name. But I thought of him as Sancho Panza.
The ending of Robot and Frank may not be disappointing; it's just not as crowd-pleasing as it could be. It's more rote than fulfilling. The audience may expect and yearn for a little more sentiment between friends.
Still, overall, Robot & Frank is a pleasure. It may remind one of Harvey (1950), but this time the friend is visible.
In its own way, Robot & Frank is pixillating.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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