Robot & Frank is a film of little consequence and, seemingly, of little ambition: few have seen it, few will see it, and it will end up as a footnote in the careers of its superb cast comprised of Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella. I have something of a soft spot for films of little consequence, and there is a lot to like, and a lot to be disappointed in, about first-time director Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank: the relative plausibility of its science-fiction elements, the assured and understated direction, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella.
In the near future, a former cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone while dementia slowly, but noticeably, sets in. Frank makes routine trips to the library to pick up non-digital books, and also to flirt with the comely librarian (Susan Sarandon). His son Hunter, an accomplished attorney and family man, makes weekly, and increasingly frustrating, visits to see his stubborn father before he finally buys him a robotic companion and helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a career philanthropist, makes short video-calls to her father from Turkmenistan. Frank’s determined stance against keeping the robot gradually softens as he realizes that the stimulating activities the robot forces him to partake in don’t necessarily have to be legal.
Robot & Frank is a simple film and it is content to be the film that it is, and not the film that it could have been. The film runs a tight eighty minutes and leaves itself little room for contemplation within its premise. Robot & Frank never delves into the relationship of Frank and the unnamed robot, at least not with any sort of depth. Frank is struggling to keep in control of his mind as he sees the past slipping away from him, while this robot he has bonded with (befriended isn’t quite the right word) keeps reminding him that he himself is just metal and programming and is perfectly content to maintain his current memory, or have it wiped should that benefit Frank. Frank’s desperation to see more than just an appliance in his partner-in-crime is tragic, potentially fascinating, and essentially glossed over.
Frank Langella’s performance is subtle, realistic, and just plain fantastic. This is Langella’s best performance since 2008’s Frost/Nixon and would be at least in the conversation for awards if it weren’t such a damnably small film. Langella plays Frank without fanfare or big speeches, he is a man trying to keep his mind from drifting away through the common methods of grit teeth and vehement denial. The extra spring in his step while he plots a heist is subtle but noticeable, the stone-faced manner in which he speaks to law enforcement is barely noticeable, but its there and it works. This is a quiet film, and Langella gives a quiet, affecting performance. He makes the film.
The rest of the cast is competent in their limited roles. James Marsden’s Hunter is suitably frustrated by his father and his brow is almost never not furrowed, but the film is too short to allow for any real character arc there, aside from his mounting frustration. Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter Madison is not onscreen enough for the audience to get a true impression other than that she has a breathy voice and that she is the sort of career-do-gooder people love to hate behind their backs, except for me (um, yeah). Sarandon continues to carve herself a niche as the distinguished love interest of distinguished (and) aging actors, and she’s doing it rather well, but there is just no substance to the role.
Peter Sarsgaard voices the titular robot, and he possesses a voice suitable for playing one of our future overlords. Comparisons to HAL 3000 are inevitable, but a better comparison is to the computer in Moon voiced by Kevin Spacey. In both of those films the technologically advanced companions of the lead possess a sort of detached helpfulness, and not a detached maliciousness. Sarsgaard is good as the robot, as he is in everything, and his conversations with Frank are amusing, but tinged with a sadness held by Frank, and projected onto the five-foot-or-so helper in front of him.
Director Jake Schreier is surprisingly comfortable behind the camera in his feature length debut, and is, thankfully, willing to let the action occur without showy direction on his part. The film is good, if a bit shallow, and it definitely shows promise for future offerings from the first-time director. Though, I have to hope that he shows more ambition in his next undertaking, Robot & Frank is too comfortable being a well-made quirky indie, which it is, but those are a dime a dozen. Schreier avoids the typical first-time director pitfalls of trying to do too much, but he goes the other way and tries to do too little.
The futuristic touches the film has – the phones, the computer screens, the robots – are grounded enough that they are realistic extensions of our current technology, but they are also immediately distinguishable as not currently existing (except for maybe in prototype). The robot itself seemed a bit too dexterous given its block-like appearance, but that is a minor quibble with the otherwise well-handled science-fiction element in the film.
Robot & Frank is a decent film, but it takes its clever premise and does just enough with it to stretch out to feature length, when it should have spent more time delving into its concept. In the end, however, the film is worth seeing solely for the performance of Frank Langella, who carries the film on his shoulders and elevates a thin story to heights it wouldn’t have been able to reach without him.