Film review: ‘Robot & Frank’ starring Frank Langella

by W. Andrew Powell
Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella in Robot & Frank

Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella in Robot & Frank

Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella in Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank
Starring: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler
Director: Jake Schreier

Rated: 8/10

Frank Langella takes a turn as a charming curmudgeon in director Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, a sci-fi lite drama set in the near future when robots are becoming common helpers for anyone with enough money.

Charming as he is, Frank is a retired ex-convict with something of a tough exterior and sly ambitions. Living alone, his son, Hunter (James Marsden), is worried that Frank is getting too forgetful, and maybe it’s time that he had someone in the house to take care of chores and make sure Frank gets some fresh mental stimulation. Frank immediately fights the idea, but when Hunter shows up with a robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, there’s not much Frank can do except grin and bear it. Even his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), who hates robots, has a hard time denying how useful the robot turns out to be.

Trying to maintain his schedule of walking into town to visit the library–a place considered to be quaint and useless by anyone under 40–Frank continues to visit his lady-friend, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), with his robot in tow. Frank and the robot even make a stop in one of the old man’s haunts, which has been turned into a store for soaps and scents, and has yet another altercation with the owner who knows Frank is swiping things.

Frank Langella and the robot

Frank Langella and the robot

Back at home, the robot’s goal is to keep Frank on a schedule to help his memory, and to improve Frank’s diet and exercise. Taking any abuse Frank can dish out, the robot makes little headway until Frank discovers that the robot has a grey area in its programming when it comes to the law. With a little persuasion, Frank teaches the robot to pick locks, and starts planning a heist that the robot sees as a great way to keep Frank interested and motivated.

Not everything goes to plan though, and Frank and his robot will have to overcome a few obstacles if Frank is going to avoid prison again.

Thanks to the film’s light sense of humour, the heart in the story, and the deft performances by Langella, Sarandon, and Sarsgaard’s voice work, Robot & Frank is an abundantly charming story that is filled with surprises. It also grew on me incredibly quickly, especially once the robot shows up and starts building a relationship with Frank.

The key to Robot & Frank is Langella’s easy charm, which is slyly pervasive, especially as he plays the more tender, troubled moments in Frank’s life. Additionally, first-time feature director Jake Schreier knows how to play the audience, without making us feel like we’ve been cheated, which is also a nod to screenwriter Christopher D. Ford who has crafted a sad, touching story.

Credit is also due for the film’s retro mood and style, which makes the story feel a little ageless–like it could have been 20 or even 30 years ago. The entire palette is faded and even a little fuzzy at times, which I can’t help but relate to Frank’s own view of the world, not to mention his memory.

There are moments where Robot & Frank does feel a bit contrived, but it’s hard not to watch this film without falling in love with this odd couple. It’s also impossible to watch the film and not question the concept of intelligence and awareness, and how it might relate to a little metal and plastic machine trying to make a man’s life better.

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