Rating: PG – Language May Offend
Run Time: 89 minutes
A story about the sweet bond between an aging man and an ageless robot has the potential for pleasant viewing. That the terrific Frank Langella, an actor deft at displaying elderly torment, happens to fill the first unit shows high promise. Robots are machines and, therefore, defy first impressions. We view them based on their intentions towards humanity. Robot in “Robot & Frank”, unlike “2001″’s HAL 9000, means well. Thus, we can drop our guard and savor this man-machine relationship.
But by the end, “Robot & Frank” lost me. My smile turned mirthless and my eyes more glazed than watery. Part of it could be the film’s complacency, its devotion (or perhaps stubbornness) to stay on a ho-hum low key of simplistic emotion and character development. The movie doesn’t say very much about old age and friendship that I didn’t just see in (the better) “Hope Springs“. “Robot & Frank” is an intractably coy comedy, indifferent to advancing its own auspicious potential.
Langella plays Frank, a retired thief who spends his later years in a country home in upstate New York. At the beginning, a title card informs us we are in the “Near Future”, which is a cute reference to science-fiction. The film is even dressed in that futuristic-looking blue-green colour scheme, which adds a strange cool tone to a film that I think wishes to imbue emotional warmth. It’s like the chilliness of “Terminator 2″ is now decked in sentimentality.
On the brink of dementia, Frank, at the behest of son Hunter (James Marsden), is forced into the care of the reliable Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Of course Frank initially is sour and wants nothing to do with Robot. The Robot is unaffected by Frank’s rejection, because, well, he’s a robot. Therefore, Robot persists until Frank finds something useful in Robot that he can exploit. The story moves inevitably, without missing a beat, from Frank’s exploitation to endearment of Robot and a grown appreciation to its tender loving care.
Simple? Yes. Heartfelt? Possibly. There is charm in some of the devil’s details, but ultimately “Robot & Frank” nestles close to a clunky plot: Frank opts to rob software tycoon Jake (Sam Rockwell-lookalike Jeremy Strong), who plans to replace the books with digital devices at a local library, run by the good-natured librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Frank has fond feelings for Jennifer, so he’s motivated to save the day.
Pretty run-of-the-mill, right? An old timer returning to his old ways. That’s better off as a Clint Eastwood thing. “Robot & Frank” tries to distinguish itself with its Robot and science-fiction rendition by first-time director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford, but they just don’t do enough with the two elements. The Robot maintains a WALLE-like cuteness, but his character is far too often accommodated by the plot. You want Robot to be funnier and more interesting in order for us to understand Frank’s arising affections.
Frank’s son and globetrotting daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) have the potential for strong counterpoint, but sort of spin their wheels on screen. Marsden and Tyler are left with awkward and cliché dialogue, bells and whistles to make them sound invested, but the tedium is in the finer print. Then we return to Robot, Frank’s loyal counterpart who cautiously reminds a forgetful Frank: “I’m not a human being.”
This is one of “Robot & Frank”’s finer truths. Robot isn’t a man – it’s man-made. It can’t have a rite of passage or come of age. It’s a design and not programmed to face the human developments in life. Robot to Langella’s character in “Robot & Frank”, like the beaver to Mel Gibson’s in “The Beaver”, is “there to save his life.” Moving indeed, until “Robot & Frank” spins its simplicity around and around until there’s little left to marvel in. The pieces fall into place too easily. “Robot & Frank” may charm, but it’s more the metallic definition of ‘pat’.