Everything about Robot & Frank is as unlikely as it is irresistible. Charming, playful and sly, it makes us believe that a serene automaton and a snappish human being can be best friends forever.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this Sundance prize winner is the easy way it blends the impeccable old-school acting of Frank Langella with the youthful independent sensibility of a pair of first-time filmmakers, writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier.
Though most indie filmmakers gravitate toward stories about the agonies of being under 30, old souls Schreier and Ford have made a film that deals, in the most good-humored way, with age, vulnerability and the need to always be of use in your own life.
To keep the story lively, the filmmakers have given it a futuristic backdrop and blended in elements of classic caper films. Engagingly written and exceptionally polished for a first-time effort, Robot & Frank has enough surprises and twists to keep us involved to the very end.
Set in “the near future” in the upstate New York town of Cold Spring, Robot & Frank opens like a thriller with a scene that neatly encapsulates much of what is to come.
The film’s first image reveals someone expertly breaking into a house in the dead of night. A flashlight scans the room and suddenly, confusion, uncertainty, even terror flood the burglar’s face. This is Frank Weld (Langella), and he has just realized he’s broken into his own home.
Frank, we soon discover, is a retired “second-story man,” a former high-end jewel thief who specialized in finding ways into buildings where no ways existed. The cold light of the next day reveals that now, at age 70, Frank has difficulty finding his way around his own house.
Long divorced and living alone, Frank is not doing well. He isn’t up to cleaning the place; the milk he has with his morning cereal has gone sour; and the restaurants in town he thinks about patronizing have gone out of business.
The only bright spot in Frank’s routine are visits to the local library, where he flirts with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the establishment’s last remaining flesh- and-blood librarian. But even this pleasure may be fleeting, as a smug, officious new technology consultant named Jake (Jeremy Strong) has a plan to phase out books entirely.
So cranky and cantankerous that no one wants to mess with him, Frank has not been a great father. His bubbly daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), video-phones in from her travels in Turkmenistan, and though married son Hunter (James Marsden) makes a 10-hour round trip every week to see him, he gets nothing for his trouble but his father’s irascible scorn.
Fearful about Frank’s condition and fed up with the long drive, Hunter comes up with an expensive, futuristic solution: He gives his father a VGC-60L healthcare aide, a talking robot who is programmed to cook, clean and get Frank on a healthy regimen.
Frank, no surprise, is resistant to having a robot in his life. Make that very resistant, and Ford’s script has no lack of withering lines suitable for expressing disdain. “You’ve got to be kidding, I am not this pathetic,” is Frank’s first reaction, followed quickly by “that thing is going to murder me in my sleep” and “get this hunk of crap out of my life.”
But, as flawlessly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard (Rachael Ma does the robotic movements), the soothing, philosophical VGC-60L turns out to be the antithesis of the malevolent HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey: It truly wants to serve man. And when that robot voice calmly says, “If you don’t mind my saying so, Frank, I think I could be a big help to you,” neither he nor Frank have any idea just where that assistance will lead them.
It is a tribute to Langella’s gifts that he makes us believe absolutely in this growing relationship between man and object, and this despite the fact that he never heard Sarsgaard’s essential voice until he viewed the finished film.
Though he has fine support from the rest of the cast, Langella’s performance is the equivalent of an acting master class as he uses delicacy and underplaying to easily hold the screen even when he’s all by himself.
Because it delivers classic movie satisfactions with a very modern spin, it’s somehow appropriate that Robot & Frank is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, the only independent company with a direct line to Hollywood’s beginnings. It’s not hard to imagine Samuel Goldwyn himself really enjoying this film, and that is saying a lot.