Judge Clark Douglas has had a long and intimate friendship with his toaster oven.
Friendship doesn't have an off switch.
"Hello, Frank. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Facts of the Case
Our story begins in rural New York in the near future. Frank (Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening) is a retired cat burglar suffering from mild dementia. He can still fend for himself well enough, but his memory isn't too good these days. When Frank's fretful son Hunter (James Marsden, X-Men) purchases a high-tech robotic device (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, An Education) to aid Frank ("Think of him as a butler," Hunter urges), the old man angrily protests. However, over time Robot and Frank begin to develop a sort of friendship. Their bond grows even stronger when Frank learns that Robot might be able to help him revive his criminal career.
There's a lot to like about Jake Schreir's Robot & Frank, a gentle comedy/drama boasting a nifty concept and an exceptional cast. Unfortunately, the film's plethora of likable moments don't really add up to much. I kept waiting for Robot & Frank to reveal itself as something deeper, to use its assorted plot strands to form a larger point. It never gets that far, instead contenting itself to be an amiable, slightly unfocused portrait of a moderately interesting chapter in an elderly man's life. Sometimes movies are simply about what they are about.
The trailers for Robot & Frank depict the film as a cutesy examination of the prickly relationship between the title characters, but the ads didn't really give viewers a heads-up that they would actually be watching a film about a man with dementia. Frank seems perfectly intact at a first glance, as he speaks with intelligence and cantankerous wit. Alas, spend much time with him and he'll start talking about his lunch plans at a restaurant that was destroyed many years ago. Robot is more of a therapist than a butler; paying more attention to Frank's mental health than his physical limitations. Over time, Robot assigns Frank a variety of tasks designed to help aid his memory. Slowly but surely, Frank begins to recover bits and pieces of distant memories. In that regard, the film plays a bit like a variation on The Notebook. The climax of this portion of the film is somewhat powerful, but frustratingly underdeveloped.
The burglary material is some of the least satisfying stuff the film has to offer, as the heist sequences never really generate any suspense and the eventual criminal investigation of Frank's recent activity (headed by a local Sheriff played by Jeremy Sisto, Suburgatory) plays out in a somewhat unconvincing fashion. The film spends too much time focusing on the details of the assorted robberies Frank is planning and does too little with that information. Robot & Frank tries on a number of different genres over the course of its brief 89-minute running time, but "crime movie" is easily the least successful of them.
Comedy is a stronger area for the flick—in fact, my only complaint is there isn't more of it. The first act offers a number of low-key laughs in its examination of the push-pull dynamic between Robot and Frank, as the latter stubbornly refuses to cooperate with the former's demands. These scenes are a testament to Langella's skill as an actor, as he never pushes too hard for easy laughs and seems entirely natural acting opposite a mechanical co-star. In many regards, the film is at its strongest when it's simply observing these two going about their daily routine.
Langella carries the film, but the supporting cast is littered with talented folks. Susan Sarandon's turn as a friendly librarian is lovely, and yet another reminder that we need more movies in which Sarandon is the center of attention. James Marsden and Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) offer quick, precise riffs on easily-recognizable character types (the harried modern businessman and the spacey, earnest hippie, respectively) in their limited screen time and provide a few fun moments. Tyler in particular is pitch-perfect when she's showing Frank a slideshow of photos from her trip to a third-world country: "So sad…but so beautiful! But so sad." As for Sarsgaard…well, his vocal work is effectively robotic, as it should be. Interesting to consider how both this performance and Kevin Spacey's voiceover role in Moon stay so firmly in HAL 9000 territory.
Robot & Frank has received a satisfying standard-def transfer, offering strong detail throughout. Though the film isn't exactly a visual wonder (despite its futuristic setting, the only differences this version of society has to offer are HDTV Skype, tiny cars and robot companions), everything looks sharp and clear. Depth is strong and flesh tones look warm and natural. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix is decent enough, though I must admit that I didn't really care for the drippy score by Francis and the Lights (save for the snappy end credits piece, which captures the sort of tone the rest of the score should have embraced). Dialogue is clean and clear. Supplements include an audio commentary with the director and a poster gallery.
Robot & Frank is a nice movie, but an inessential one. Is it worth seeing? Sure, for Frank Langella's performance and a handful of smile-inducing moments. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling this could have been something much more.
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