Now playing in limited release after a favorable reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for movies featuring science as a theme or scientists as protagonists), Robot & Frank is an immensely charming little movie. The “immense” is meant to make the “little” seem less condescending, because there’s nothing at all wrong with being a little movie. Movies come in all shapes and sizes. And Robot & Frank, a simple story about friendship and family, is the best kind of small movie.
Set in the near future, Robot & Frank is the story of retiree Frank (Frank Langella), whose two adult children (James Marsden, Liv Tyler) check in on him now and again. Frank’s memory is going—the friendly local librarian (Susan Sarandon) politely avoids mentioning it—his favorite restaurant where he continually insists he ate “last week” has been closed for years, and his housekeeping is slipping badly. Frank’s son arrives at the solution of buying Frank a robot whose prime directive is to look after Frank and keep him healthy. Frank resists but in fairly short order the robot’s calm efficiency wins him over and, surprisingly, Frank’s grip on reality and a bit of his memory return to him. Eventually, Frank realizes that due to the literalism of the robot’s programming it’s an ideal colleague for the commission of burglaries. Which, after all, was Frank’s former career.
A considerable degree—not to say all—of the movie’s charm comes from Frank Langella’s performance in the lead. He’s so good, you guys. He doesn’t go all Oscar-chasing “look at how profound I am playing someone with dementia” haminess, he just plays every moment with absolute sincerity and humanity. You want to see great acting? This is it. He doesn’t go out of his way to impress you with how awesome he is, and neither does the movie itself. Which is why both performance and movie are so charming. The rest of the cast is up to Langella’s standard, with Jeremy Sisto’s nice guy town sheriff being briefly quite excellent.
Probably the movie’s most prominent asset as both art and science fiction is its absence of sentimentality. There’s a revelation near the end that’s a bit melodramatic, but not overly so primarily because it’s the only such touch in the whole picture. The relationship between Frank and the robot, while Frank refers to the robot as his friend, is stripped of any sentimental illusions by the robot, who is bluntly candid about his lack of emotions and lack of fear about potentially having his memory erased (when the burglary bit gets complicated). And, in time, Frank comes to realize, accept, and enjoy that memory is not all there is to life, and to live in the moment. I know how sentimental and “hey, far out, man” that sounds, but tonally and in every way the movie refuses to approach this subject matter in the kind of Hollywood/Hallmark card/Oscar-bait way a cynic might think it would. The end result feels more like Philip K. Dick without the amphetamine-induced paranoia. If such a thing is conceivable.
Robot & Frank is the kind of picture for those moods when everything seems too fast, and noisy, and invasive. It will, not to be too glib, chase those damn kids off your lawn. Sometimes a little quiet is what’s needed. For those moments, may I recommend Robot & Frank and its protagonist.