Frank (played by Frank Langella) is a retired jewel thief who’s paid the price for his previous sins via stints in jail, but who clearly has enough buried stash to live out his retirement in relative comfort and provide for his kids, Madison (played by the infrequently seen Liv Tyler) and Hunter (played by X-men star James Marsden). Frank’s leisure time is spend wandering into town to swap books at the library and progress his mild infatuation with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon). As old age progresses though, Frank is losing some of his marbles and so Hunter lines him up with a robot butler to not only cater for his needs but also (through its ‘health and welfare’ programmes) try to get the old man moving more, both physically and mentally. It is an irony of the film that the activity the robot stimulates (via an act of petty larceny than is apparently not constrained by its programming) is a rejuvenation of Frank’s cat burglar ways.
I tend to approach ‘futuristic’ films with caution. Most directors wildly over-imagine the advances in the way in which technology will impact society: case in point, the Hill Valley of Back to the Future II is on October 21st in two years time! Reality often fails to live up to the hype: washing machines still break down (as ours has today), and the Central Line still resembles a Swedish sauna in August.
This is just one of the many things that Robot and Frank does right: whilst it is set in the “near future” the new technology is neatly integrated into the old crusty stuff we know and love. The believability of the robot premise is neatly portrayed over the end titles which show some of the current state-of-the-art for home robotics. And while Frank treks along a country road a small electric runaround zips past him, but in other clips older ‘traditional’ cars also litter the streets. The library, in a post-Kindle age, is only now being ‘updated’ from its old fashioned paper books to a new immersive ‘community experience’ because it got “missed” in an earlier programme.
This is a very entertaining and at times quite moving film. It deals well with the topic of senility and nicely frames the children’s guilt at trying to balance their parental duties versus investing time in their own families or lifestyles. What really grounds the film are the central performances of Langella and Sarandon, which are superb: I’ve seen reviews that criticise Langella for not showing much emotion or range. But to me, he was extremely credible as the irascible but cooly calculating ex-con, more puzzled than upset by his failing faculties. Sarandon too makes the librarian – mourning the ‘old ways’ but embracing the new – very human, and a neat and surprising twist in the story is beautifully acted by her.
Peter Sarsgaard voices the robot (the robot itself has diminutive dancer Rachael Ma inside it) sounding more like a HAL 9000 from 2001 than HAL itself: since the main character’s name is Frank as well, some of the dialogue has you doing a double take. (While we’re on the subject of the robot’s dialogue, there are a couple of lines of dialogue lifted – save for the gender – from Star Wars: can you spot them?).
In many ways, this could have been a really great arthouse movie in setting up the characters and the robot and letting the relationship scenarios play out rather more. It is the first 45 minutes of the film that really delight, seeing the way in which the robot challenges the old man’s set ways and how they spark together, eventually grounding their curious relationship in a mutual respect. In many ways, the ensuing plot about the pair’s adventures in robbery lessens the emotional impact that the film could have had, but gives it a populist edge that should get the crowds in. This is a film squarely targeted again (as for Marigold Hotel, Quartet and Song for Marion) at the ‘grey pound’, but unlike those films this is one that should find favour across a broad age range – whilst 12A rated (not immediately sure why??) you could take kids to see it and they would probably enjoy it too.
Fad Rating: FFFF