By Joan Ellis
Robot and Frank is by turns funny, touching and shot through with sly social commentary. We meet Frank (Frank Langella) as he is wandering aimlessly through his familiar hometown. Son Hunter (James Marsden) arrives for his weekly visit to check in on his father. Already, everyone in the audience over 60 is hooked. Forgetting is something we understand.
Because Frank refuses to go to a hospital, Hunter has brought a glorious symbol of the “near future” in which this movie unfolds. His gift to his father is a white robot (Peter Sarsgaard’s voice) which has been programmed with Frank’s medical information and personal habits. Robot (he is never named) will cook, clean, serve and carry out requests from his new charge. He will take care of Frank and give Hunter peace of mind.
Frank Langella’s interplay with Robot is lovely to behold. This fine actor manages the odd job without ever becoming saccharine. Slowly, Robot tries to enforce, or at least encourage, a healthy lifestyle for the grumpy and reluctant Frank. With a sudden puncture of insight Frank realizes he can enlist his new aide in his former career as a jewel thief. This creates much of the lightness as Frank makes requests that lead to comical missteps when taken literally by his partner in crime. Robot, absent a human conscience that can choose between right and wrong, is merely helping Frank. How long will it be, we wonder, before we can write software for a conscience? We already know the answer: not long.
In the present when change is rolling over us faster than we can absorb it, or perhaps even recognize it, Frank’s friend Robot is not that far-fetched a fellow. Consider, for example, that when we go to a hospital these days, we are likely to be handed a business card with the names of the hospital doctors. “One of these will see you.” Goodbye to your regular internist who knows you and has your trust. The new stranger in the white coat stands at your bedside and announces procedures, routines and drugs, according to tests taken by other strangers. Exactly like Robot, but without a whit of his charm.
Director Jake Schreier manages to keep Frank anchored in the future with Robot and in the past with his tentative friendship with town librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon, in a nice, appropriately subdued performance). In another suggestion of our own “near future,” the town powers have announced that books are relics of the past and that plans for their removal are under way.
Except for a whiny performance by Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter, and a too-wide leap of belief the movie asks of us toward the end, this is a story about friendship – strange as that seems. It all happens gradually and with subtlety in the hands of Robot and Frank, two charmers who keep their story aloft. The inevitable: Every woman will be thinking “I want one of those.”
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.