Filmmaker Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is set in the “near future,” but with the exception of a few fancy cars, some spiffy video-chatting technology, and the aforementioned robot, it’s a science-fiction story that does without the typical sci-fi tropes—and that’s just part of the magic in this clever, compelling film.
Robot & Frank casts veteran actor Frank Langella as an aging former thief whose deteriorating mind prompts his children to buy him a robot caretaker. After some initial resistance to his new “assistant,” Frank begins to see the benefit of his artificial pal—especially when it comes to planning a bold new heist.
The product of both a first-time director and the first-produced screenplay from writer Christopher Ford, Robot & Frank does a nice job of blending the fresh energies of its writer and director with the formidable talents of its veteran star. While it’s not exactly a one-man show, Langella is both the focal point of the film and its chief narrative engine, driving the story forward as his character’s relationship with the robot changes his perspective on the world, for good and bad.
But that’s not to say that Robot & Frank is mired in some sort of commentary on aging and society—far from it, in fact.
One of the most interesting aspects of Robot & Frank is the way in which Schreier and his star have made it a film about time and aging that never actually feels like the sort of films that typically tackle these subjects. Where other films would likely take a turn for the somber, Robot & Frank keeps things lighthearted and fun, and makes its dramatic moments more effective by packaging them within an odd-couple comedy. In many ways, Langella is the film’s Oscar Madison, equal parts free spirit and creature of (sloppy) habit, while the robot (who’s never given a name other than “robot”) is a mechanical Felix Unger, obsessed with giving Frank a better life through organization.
Frank’s relationship with his adult children, played by James Marsden and Liv Tyler, adds another layer to the odd-couple dynamic, with one child (Marsden) thrilled by the potential of Frank’s new, managed life via the robot and the other child (Tyler) horrified by the notion of their father employing a robot slave. Both actors make the most of their brief time on the screen, and provide some context for both the role of robots in this “near-future” world and the sort of family dynamic that comes from having a loving—despite his obvious moral flaws—ex-convict for a father.
Susan Sarandon also delivers a solid performance as the local librarian Frank is out to impress with his new heist.
Given how much Robot & Frank has going for it, it’s disappointing to see how much the film isn’t being promoted during its limited-release run in theaters. Funny, charming, and surprisingly clever, the film is packed with the sort of potential that turns an under-the-radar project into a word-of-mouth success story.