Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier and written by Christopher Ford winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and Sundance Film Festival will arrive at theaters this week. The film stars Frank Langella (Frank), Susan Sarandon (Jennifer), Peter Sarsgaard (Robot Voice), James Marsden (Hunter), Liv Tyler (Madison) Jeremy Strong (Jake), Jeremy Sisto (detective).
“Robot and Frank” pits the actor against a mechanical counterpoint who has no name. As Frank, Langella plays a crabby ex-thief wasting away his senior years in a near future that looks much like the present. Living alone in Cold Springs, New York, the man meets his match when his grown son (James Marsden) buys his dad a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to care for his every need. While initially reticent to accept the pushy machine into his life, Frank eventually realizes that the robot’s amoral outlook makes it the ultimate accomplice in his intention of pulling off one final heist. Through a twisted burst of inspiration, Frank rediscovers his vitality.
After a hip designer (Jeremy Strong) decides to renovate the library into an augmented reality experience, Frank decides that he’ll be the perfect mark for his robbery. But his plans are complicated when his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) comes to take care of him. Not motivated by any kind of financial reward, Frank seems to keep stealing just for something to do, to keep his mind active. And so we’re not really supposed to care that much about the actual robbery because it’s not connected to anything consequential. Boiled down to its essentials, it’s a story about an old man resistant to change who accepts it early on and uses it to his advantage.
While the premise certainly makes it stand out from the sea of dysfunctional family dramas, a cute idea alone doesn’t quite cut it. In the end it’s just not funny enough to be completely entertaining and the sentiment feels tacked on. Instead of being built up from the emotional ground floor, the movie appears to have been birthed premise first with resonance to be filled in later. Langella shows up just ready to crush it but needs better material to work with. There is a big reveal towards the end of the film that feels cheap and unearned and an interesting parallel between Frank’s Alzheimer’s and his resistance to resetting Robot but it’s hardly explored. As far as the technology goes, the phones are clear and thin and video chats are voice activated but otherwise could be set in modern day. There are of course, lots of films set in the future that use minimal upgrades to indicate the time period but the details here just don’t seem as thought through. It’s as if the filmmakers just threw up their arms and said, “We thought it would be funny to watch a buddy movie with an old guy and a robot.”
Directed by newcomer Jake Schreier from a screenplay by Christopher D. Ford, “Robot and Frank” allows its understated wit to emerge organically from well-calibrated performances and the resulting pathos. Despite the ostensibly absurd set-up, the filmmakers play it straight, so that Frank’s initial resistance to the robot’s intrusion in his secluded life is no less credible than if the old man were grappling with a pushy roommate. It’s only the director first feature, former keyboardist in the band Francis and the Lights (who also compose the score) and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford (who expanded it from his 2003 short film), and it seems to have connected with audiences at the festival. It was picked up a few days ago by Sony Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films. But watching it, there were just too many missed opportunities. Had the film drawn the connection for the audience that if you’re a young person now then Frank could actually be you in the near future, it might have resonated a little more. Instead we get a diversion about a jewel heist and the police closing in. While it may be unfair to compare the novice filmmakers to a creative visionary like Spike Jonze, his robot short “I’m Here” packed much more of an emotional wallop into a tight 30 minutes than this film did in 90. It just goes to highlight what’s missing here: the reason for telling this story.
When movie maker tell a story there must be a compelling reason for telling it. I was left thinking Why.