Oh to be a fly on the wall in the pitch meeting for Robot And Frank. “It’s about a former cat burglar who is given a robot that helps him continue to steal.” The executive producers’ faces must have lit up; “And it will star a name like Will Smith and have amazing CGI and action set pieces?” No. It’ll star Frank Langella and be set in sleepy upstate New York and will have no real action with all of the effects being done by a girl in a robot suit. Faces must have dropped. But someone liked the idea because, thankfully, Robot And Frank got made and it’s better than any Will Smith, CGI induced box-office behemoth you care to think of.
Frank (Frank Langella) is an aging former jewel thief living in the very near future. He’s in the early stages of dementia, forgetting who people are and thinking that his son Hunter (James Marsden) is still at Princeton, despite graduating fifteen years ago. The only time Frank’s happy is when he visits the local library run by Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), or when he’s shoplifting from a soap shop. But the library, like Frank, is a relic of a bygone era. People don’t want or need the printed word anymore and local investor Jake (Jeremy Strong) is buying it to make it a community center. With Frank’s memory getting worse, Hunter, much to sister Madison’s (Liv Tyler) disapproval, buys Frank a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help out around the house and to get Frank into a routine to improve his health. At first Frank dislikes the Robot, refusing to name him and finding him a bore. But when the Robot steals something by mistake, Frank soon realises that his new helper might be able to get him back in the thieving game.
A film dealing with the onset of dementia is always going to be a tough watch. But writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier handle the issue with delicate charm. Frank is still aware of who he is, he’s just easily confused and sometimes becomes disorientated as to where he is. The film deals with some otherwise heavy issues of family abandonment and responsibility but the concept of memory is always at the fore. Early on, when Frank is being particularly belligerent towards the machine, Robot informs him that if he doesn’t do as Robot asks then Hunter will send him back to the factory where they will wipe his memory, making him useless. This hits home with Frank, horrified that his son would do such a thing and before long the pair have become inseparable.
But Robot is not human; he’s not a C3PO or a Sonny from I, Robot. He’s a machine, an automaton designed to help Frank in any way he can. You know the way your grandparents or even parents treat computers? Like they might explode or turn on them at any given moment. That’s Frank’s emotion towards Robot. But gradually he warms to him, enjoying the company even if it is artificial and of a bickering nature. It’s Frank’s desire for a companion that instills character in Robot, their relationship reminiscent of Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey’s GERTY in Duncan Jones’ brilliant Moon. There are clear parallels between this film and that, not least of which is Sarsgaard’s Robot voice sounding remarkably similar to Spacey’s.
Once Frank begins to understand the true potential of Robot, it’s not long before he’s teaching him to pick locks and bargaining with him to let them find a mark to rob. In return for being allowed to rob the library of one of the last remaining books, Frank must promise to adhere to Robot’s low-sodium diet. It’s moments like this that makes for an entertaining, odd couple chemistry between the two titular characters.
Much of the film’s laughs and emotion come from wonderful performances. Liv Tyler, long since only seen as The Lord Of The Rings’ Elf Princess, reminds you why she used to be such a hot property. Her role as Madison may be fleeting but it’s injected with a desperate-to-be-seen-to-care mentality. Marsden meanwhile is the despairing son who’s reached that point where he wants to help his dad but is frustrated by his father’s refusal to cooperate. Sarandon is on typically charming form, softly spoken and always luminous in Frank’s otherwise sterile world. But the film lives and dies with Frank Langella and in this cinematic stalwart’s hands it sores high. At first he injects Frank with a typical grumpy old man persona, doddering around, scowl painted permanently on his visage. But when he begins to slip back into his old hobby of planning heists, Langella brings a sense of mischief to the role. Suddenly Frank has energy and purpose to life and we revel in his delight as much as he does.
Robot And Frank is a rare delight. A sci-fi comedy/drama that will make you laugh and cry but most of all give you that warm satisfaction you only get from a simple story perfectly told. This is one Tin Man who needs no heart.