Robot & Frank (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 20th October, 2012

Set in an undefined near-future in a small upstate New York town, Robot and Frank is a sweet, hilarious little sleeper. It’s a small film, but one that I suspect will be beloved by future generations – the kind of imperfect, winning title like Short Circuit or D.A.R.Y.L. that kids grow up watching on TV without it being part of any critical canon, then re-watch and bond with others over in their student days. I’ll get to the imperfect part later.

Frank Langella plays Frank as a cranky old man whose son is tired of driving out to see him only to clean up the mess he has made of the house. The robot, bought by the son, is a superintelligent housekeeper who can hold conversations, create a diet plan, cook meals and advise Frank against behaviour that is bad for his wellbeing. (How the robot can tell whether food is fresh or not without a sense of smell, I’m not sure, but never mind.)

Robot and Frank has a subtle sense of its future setting, with everything just a little more clinical, with Skype conversations on big TVs, with electric cars whirring along, and with the digi-hipster vanguard becoming the establishment, and making plans for the local library. “They’re kids, who think books are cool again,” says the librarian, in a performance by Susan Sarandon that shows her off as still fiery and gorgeous at 66. “You must remember when this library was the only way to learn about the world!” says the head digital whizkid, a patronising little shit played by Jeremy Strong. “I’d love to talk to you more about your history with ‘printed information!’” (Given the way public services are moving, I’d be amazed if there are print libraries still around to digitise in the future, but never mind that either.)

The joy in Robot and Frank comes from the no-bullshit quality of Langella, and the fact that he turns his electronic helper to mischief. Early on, when Frank learns that some kids have been hassling and meddling with the robot, he says, “Next time that happens, you just say ‘SELF-DESTRUCT SEQUENCE INITIATED!’” Later we learn that Frank was in his younger days a jewel thief, and he gets a new lease of life by planning heists with the robot as his safecracker. It’s touching, how much Frank gets over his initial cynicism to find joy with his compadre. Peter Sarsgaard’s robot voice, slightly digitally altered of course, is a cross between HAL from 2001 and a warm, reassuring human lilt. And it’s a blast that they get up to naughty capers, from the basic absurdity of seeing a plastic robot hidden in bushes wearing a black hood to the whole idea that this irreverent old criminal is thumbing his nose at the patronising, pussified, play-it-safe next generation.

My criticisms of the film, though, would be around character issues too. Not only are there self-absorbed technological nitwits all about, but the character of Frank’s daughter, played by Liv Tyler, is a globe-trotting hippie who loves the “authenticity” of “indigenous peoples” and is part of something called the ‘Human Movement,’ which stands against robot labour because of its replacement of jobs for people – hypocritically, of course, because when she puts herself to housework, she finds it tough and gets help from the robot in secret. There’s a streak of youth-hatred here, as the film both portrays activists as dumb rich kids deludedly romanticising the past and young entrepreneurs as smug, shallow, gizmo-obsessed wankers. Robot and Frank’s way of portraying the future is to create new versions of old stereotypes instead of illuminating anything deep about the world. This despite the fact that the writer, Christopher Ford, graduated from college less than ten years ago, and the director, Jake Schreier, is a young musician, who has worked for Francis and the Lights, the artist who provides the lovely piano-and-keyboard score.

Robot and Frank also fails in an ending that deals with Frank’s memory loss, despite a sensitive portrayal throughout most of the film. It springs a twist that is inconsistent with the rest of the material, even within the inconsistent nature of dementia. It’s a shame, because at its best this is a warm, gently wayward little film with a memorable central relationship of characters beautifully played.