Frank Langella in Robot and Frank
Can a robot and a human be friends? Writer Christopher Ford explores this unexpected theme in his gently futuristic and quirky Robot & Frank. Frank Langella plays Frank, a divorced senior citizen and retired burglar who has served time for his transgressions and lives alone in Upstate New York. His children Hunter (James Marsden) and Maddy (Liv Tyler) worry about him being alone and about his memory lapses, so Hunter gives Frank a robotic caregiver (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) that is programmed to cook and clean and establish a healthy routine.
Frank is put off. He is not interested in gardening, hiking in the woods, or eating grapefruit for breakfast, which he makes clear to his new appliance that has a personality but no name. But before long, Frank starts to appreciate how much orderliness and companionship the Robot brings to his solitary life. He also discovers that he can train him to do specific tasks, like pick a lock.
Robot and Frank is commendable for its humor and its fresh, uncharted territory. Mr. Ford crafts some rich dialogue and funny lines, and gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to be a machine with a purpose but no emotional attachment. We are as entertained as we are intrigued.
But the story needs a stronger frame of reference. At first we identify with Frank. But as the film evolves, we don’t really know what to make of him or even what to hope for. And then there’s the Robot. The little guy is consistent in taking his job seriously. But his sense of integrity gets a little muddled, so he straddles the line between right and wrong. This makes him a confusing character, which deprives the story of some solid ground and of a more interesting trajectory than the mixed message it settles for.
As viewers, we endure some “huh?” moments where the writer seems to struggle with the story’s foundation and direction, and how it all might resolve. In spite of the movie’s weakness, go along for the ride and you’ll be rewarded with some unusual entertainment that’s worth the rental. B