Teaming up an old man with a robot for a series of comedic misadventures and heists sounds like the makings of a piece of direct to DVD dreck that languishes on video store shelves with a B or C list cast never to be seen again, and indeed at a surface glance the low budget comedy-drama Robot & Frank definitely seems to conform to those suspicions. What’s wonderful about the film from first time feature director Jake Schreier is just how fully it commits to its outlandish premise and that the filmmaker has found a cast willing to go along with it as far as it can go, especially leading man Frank Langella, who puts in some of the best work of his long and storied career.
An aging former cat burglar (Langella) in the not too distant future of video phones and hipster yuppies run amok finds himself falling slowly into Alzheimer’s Disease despite not wanting to believe it. His son (James Marsden) can’t keep looking after him since he has a family of his own now, so he commissions a helper robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to look after his dad and make sure he eats healthy and stays active, much to the chagrin of the fiercely independent Frank and his “human rights” loving vagabond daughter (Liv Tyler). Following some banter and initial hatred of his glorified servant, Frank quickly realizes that he can dupe the robot into thinking that pulling off a few final heists acts as therapeutic exercise for him. Together, the once bickering odd couple become strange friends, even banding together when the police start to get suspicious.
The script from first time feature writer Christopher Ford goes a long way to helping the cast where they need to go by grounding the outlandish story with a real sense of purpose and believability. Ford and Schreier aren’t so much going for an aesthetic that suggests things were simpler back in the day, but rather a strange cautionary tale for where we all seem to be headed. As a document of growing old in the digital age and being set in a future that isn’t too far removed from our own, it’s interesting to ponder that Frank would be someone who is only in his late 40s or early 50s right now and the people who want to drag him kicking and screaming into the future are hotshots in their early 20s who seem to never grow up thanks to their reliance on today’s “get it now or not at all” culture.
The fact that the film’s villain is a square rimmed glasses art gallery type (played wonderfully by Jeremy Strong) who has turned his beloved local library into a retro cool facility where nothing much happens and the mission statement seems to vaguely focus on an undefined sense of “community” holds a nice bit of weight as both social commentary and as a pretty darn funny gag. This also plays less successfully into the film’s romantic subplot since Frank’s newfound resurgence in thievery has given him the confidence to pursue the head librarian (Susan Sarandon, who as of late has carved out a nice niche for herself in this type of role). The romance doesn’t add too much until late in the film and by that point it seems more of a convenience that will somehow tie the film together.
That ending kind of brings the film down, not really because it abandons the wit and sharpness of the rest of it, but because it gets oddly repetitive and feeling like its simply trying to drag the running time out past the 80 minute mark to make it seem like it has a respectable length. It’s one of those endings where there’s a couple of small twists, a very simple con, and everything could really be summed up in five minutes, but it instead takes 20.
But that’s still a small demerit given how incredible Langella is in the lead here, and it definitely seems (since Sony is releasing the film under the little used Samuel Goldwyn label) that this was probably really was a Direct to DVD project at some point. Thanks to a release in the States last week and someone who saw something special in the film, Langella actually seems to be starting to build some Oscar buzz for himself, and it’s easy to see why. As Frank, Langella balances broad comedy, sharp wit, and a delicate portrait of a man who doesn’t want to let go of even the most haunted memories of his past. His interactions with Sarsgaard (and Rachel Ma who physically plays the robot on screen) are also great since the banter is perfectly natural despite the fact that they were probably never in the same room together. It’s a great role for the aging actor and given his body of previous work, it’s not that hard to imagine him making another potential run at the awards podium if enough people end up seeing the film. It showcases his underutilized talent for comedy, and the film never lets him down.
Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Top image: A scene from Robot & Frank. Courtesy Sony Pictures.