Robot & Frank (2012)
Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden
Directed by Jake Schreier
Written by Christopher D. Ford
Frank (Langella) is a man who has difficulty with relationships and also his memory. His daughter is travelling the world, helping people in third-world countries. His son is a success, but visits Frank once a week more out of a sense of duty than a deep, familial love. He’s been separated from his wife for quite some time. He lives in a small house a good way out of town, in a fairly rural patch without close neighbors. He spends most of his days alone.
His son, Hunter, sees that the situation is untenable and is faced with two choices — either put him in an assisted-living home or buy him a robot who’ll do the chores and keep Frank on a tight schedule that makes sure he’s keeping himself up. I’m thinking he decides on the robot because it makes him feel less guilty. He’s giving his dad a present instead of admitting defeat and that he wants to visit him a lot less. Prickly Frank doesn’t appreciate the gesture, but it gets the plot going. Amazingly, the robot idea works. Slowly but surely, Frank begins to re-engage with life and he forms an odd, sweet bond with the robot. Of course, that re-engagement brings its own messy set of consequences.
I think that’s about all of the plot I can give without actually giving things away, but I think it is safe to say that Robot & Frank is a welcome addition to the spate of small, smart sci-fi movies that have been produced over the past few years. It uses one, spare element of science fiction to deepen the study of Frank’s character and explore what relationships do for us. Even when those relationships begin in impersonal circumstances, we can’t help but develop personal feelings there. It’s just our natures.
The robot himself never falls into the cliche of being an antagonist. It never tries to kill Frank in his sleep, and it never acts outside the range of its programming. It’s there to be a facilitator to Frank, for better or for worse. It’s that kind of unwavering support that he needs, it turns out, to help him step out of his shell and the tangled soup of his memories, to remember the life he had and who he was before old age started chipping away at him. That’s a fascinating idea to me; even though the robot is essentially an incredibly advanced appliance, it manages to fulfill this basic human need for connection, for interaction. And that does an incredible amount of good.
It also allows us to delve into Frank’s character in a way we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. There’s a reason his relationships have fallen apart that have nothing to do with his failing mind. He’s manipulative, selfish and a bit of a hedonist. He does things that make him feel good without regard of the consequences. That hurts everyone around him, but in ways he either doesn’t consider or doesn’t see. Despite that, he’s actually not a bad guy; he cares about his family and the one friend he has — the librarian he visits frequently in town (Sarandon). But when he tries to do something nice, it comes from this flawed place that, well, warps the gesture quite a bit.
Langella is great here. He imbues Frank with enough complexity to carry the film and make the character breathe beyond it. There are a lot of instances where you’re not sure if he’s making a mistake because his mind has failed him or he’s abusing people’s perception of him to fly under the radar. He’s grumpy, sly, vulnerable and earnest, and endlessly fascinating to watch.
The world that Frank inhabits is billed as a ‘near-future’, but it’s a stylized suggestion of one more than anything. There are touches of neat tech here and there, like the ubiquity of video phones in a believable, off-handed way. Robotics has come a long way, but not too far. And Priuses are just old enough to be considerably beaten jaloppies, which is a nice touch. Still, the world is given just enough weight that the characters feel real living in it, and nothing more. The film’s unwavering, close-up focus on Frank relegates world-building to an afterthought.
And that’s something I don’t mind for the most part. The other characters suffer a bit, though. James Marsters and Liv Tyler aren’t given much to work with as the exasperated children, but that actually works a little since Frank doesn’t really see them as people but as a means to an end for most of the story. It would have been nice to see a little more of the consequences of Frank’s behavior borne out in his son and daughter, but it’s hard to imagine how that could have happened without taking away from the core relationship between man and robot.
All in all, Robot & Frank is a smart, funny movie that I definitely recommend. Chances are you’ll catch it on DVD before anything, and I think that’s just fine. If you like your sci-fi mixed in with indie characterization, you’ll definitely like this.