On the surface, Jake Schreier’s first feature, Robot and Frank is another sweet, warm tale of an elderly man reliving his glory years through the acquaintance of one younger and seemingly his opposite. It’s also very much like other ageing buddy films, with all of the humour of The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men, with a very timely message about ageing and loneliness, care of the elderly and familial responsibility; all wrapped up in a very funny science fiction heist film.
Frank (Frank Langella) is an ex-cat burglar, and from what we can surmise, a not entirely successful one. Despite the fact that, for him, planning a burglary was like planning a military operation, we learn that over the years he has spent lot of time in prison. Now, in his later years, he lives alone in a nice house, in a nice wooded area of upstate New York. He is losing his memory, possibly through dementia or just old age, and passes his days visiting the local library (which is in the process of falling prey to modernity and time itself) and reliving past glories nicking trinkets from a boutique, the proprietors of which seem fully aware of who he is and what he’s up to. His daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) is off travelling, saving the planet from the third world up; and his son Hunter (X-Men’s James Marsden) visits him every couple of weeks, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.
When Hunter arrives to visit his father, we learn that he and Madison have invested in a Robot helper and companion for Frank, as much to relieve themselves of duty, one feels, as to benefit their father. The Robot, superbly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, is a bizarre mixture of health-and-fitness guru and the Admirable Chrichton, who has only Frank’s best intentions programmed into his circuits; though even this programming, we will see, can be circumvented by the uniquely human trait of applying logic obliquely.
Initially unreceptive to his new companion/carer, Frank soon takes to using him as a sounding board for his tales of criminal derring-do which eventually turns into a sort of genuine affection. While this is going on, Frank begins to develop a friendship with the librarian at the local library, Jennifer (played by Susan Sarandon, who hasn’t looked this good in ages) and seems on the verge of developing a relationship with her, to which end he plans to steal for her the library’s copy of Don Quixote, which is going to fall victim to the library’s planned digitisation. After Frank and Robot have completed the Don Quixote heist, Frank begins to get a taste for it again, and a lovely rapport develops between the two of them.
The man responsible for, in Frank’s view, destroying the library, is Jake (played with cool, arrogant lack of emotion by Jeremy Strong), Frank’s very rich, very “avant-garde” neighbour, and when Frank confirms this, he plans one last great swansong, in order that he avenge Jennifer, teach Jake a lesson and reclaim his old vocation from the grip of time. Saving the library seems to be an afterthought.
The final heist (put off by Madison arriving and disabling Robot, leading Frank to reveal that not only does he need Robot, he misses him too) and its aftermath are handled with ample humour and the right amount of tension, resulting in an exciting finale and a truly touching and quite sad revelation involving Jennifer.
The film takes place in a wonderfully ambiguous future-is-now setting, with all of the shiny technology in the film futuristic enough though only a few steps away from what is currently available. The techniques used to create this technology in the film make it believable without ever being flashy, the technology accepted as a given and not thrust at the viewer constantly as a reminder of the film’s conceit.
This is a film that tries to achieve an awful lot: its trying to be at once clever, sly, charming, touching and funny; to get its message about ageing and care across as well as telling an entertaining caper story. And while the film is, as Roger Ebert points out, “too easily satisfied”, it manages, mostly, to handle these different tasks with aplomb.
At times the film tends to get carried away with its own energy, hence some of the emotional scenes are not dwelled upon long enough for their impact to sink in, and some of the diegetic comedy (Frank and Robot ‘casing’ their next target) seems to go on a little too long, repeating certain scenes and labouring points that are not that important. Despite these little problems however, the film is elevated beyond the level of being “just another buddy comedy” by Frank Langella’s masterful performance. He is funny, bitter, warm, deceitful, honest and above all, realistically entertaining. He not only holds the film together (he is in almost every scene) but he manages to do all of the above whilst delivering a technically flawless performance.
A very entertaining, funny and touching film, if a little unevenly paced and emotionally inconsistent.
Robot and Frank will be released to cinemas in Britain in March of 2013.
Director: Jake Schreier
Stars: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard (voice), Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong
Running time: 89min