ROBOT & FRANK
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Written by: Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Strong
Some actors improve with age (and aging). Once known more for his old-school, matinee-idol looks than his acting talent, Frank Langella has not only aged gracefully, but he’s grown as an actor as well, giving one impressive performance after another over the last decade, all, without exception, worth seeing for the first time or revisiting for a second, if only or primarily for Langella’s contributions to acting. Langella brings subtlety, depth, range, sensitivity, and gravitas to practically every role, large and small. His latest, ROBOT & FRANK, is no exception. ROBOT & FRANK, an emotionally engaging genre mash-up that’s unequal parts sci-fi, heist-thriller, comedy-drama, is also a surprisingly impressive feature-length debut for screenwriter Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier.
When we first meet Frank (Langella), a retired “second-story man” (i.e., cat burglar), he’s quietly, stealthily picking a lock. Successful, he steps into an empty house. Seconds later, Frank realizes he’s not in a stranger’s home. He’s in his own. Frank suffers from dementia (Alzheimer’s), meaning he’s prone to memory lapses, disorientation, confusion, and irritability (as a result of the memory lapses, disorientation, and confusion). He also lives alone, refusing to allow his well-meaning son, Hunter (James Marsden), a successful professional of one kind or another, to hire a caretaker or send him to a nursing home that specializes in Alzheimer’s patients. Frank’s daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), calls when she can from some far-flung location, but she’s too caught up working for a Turkmenistan charity to notice Frank’s deteriorating mental and physical condition.
Hunter, however, notices Frank’s deterioration and, frustrated by Frank’s stubbornness, purchases the latest in assisted living technology, an ambulatory, adaptive robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Frank initially responds with disgust, anger, and even fear, but over time adjusts to the robot’s presence, gradually allowing the robot to dictate his schedule and his meals. Schreier and Ford find humor in the uneasy, awkward relationship between Frank and the robot. The robot’s presence leads, if not inevitably, then inexorably, to Frank’s temporary recovery of his faculties. A romantic subplot enters the film when Frank decides to renew his pursuit of a librarian facing retirement, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). He finds a renewed sense of purpose when he decides to steal a rare book from the library. The robot, already his caretaker and confidante, becomes his co-conspirator too.
Schreier and Ford expertly segue between (and among) genres, often within the same scene. When Frank decides to target the one-percenter who’s purchased the library as part of an augmented reality experience project and not, to Frank’s displeasure, to save the printed books the library contains, he enlists the robot to participate in the planned heist. Complications inevitably arise, initially from his well-meaning children and later when the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto), suspecting Frank’s involvement in the earlier theft, raises the likelihood that Frank will return to prison. Jennifer functions primarily as the semi-obligatory romantic object of desire for Frank, but she also represents the road not traveled, the road traveled without a friend or companion.
There’s more to ROBOT & FRANK, of course, but the remainder of Frank’s physical and emotional journey, should be left for moviegoers to discover for themselves. Thematically, however, ROBOT & FRANK explores the nature of personal identity, specifically the importance of long- and short-term memories to our personalities and, thus, to our core identities. It also explores the increasingly complex relationship we have with technology. Frank simultaneously exists in two centuries, the last one and the current one. Despite his failing memory, Frank remembers the pre-Internet age, remembers books and libraries with nostalgia-inspired fondness. But that nostalgia proves only a minor obstacle. The robot may have been designed to adapt, but Frank eventually proves the robot’s creators are just as, if not more, adaptable to changing circumstances and situations.