It is a testament to the gimmick-free execution of “Robot & Frank” that one of the first adjectives that come to mind when discussing the film is not “quirky.” After all, the premise–in the near future, a former cat burglar (Frank Langella) battling dementia uses his helper robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to steal jewelry from a man who is shamefully digitizing the town’s library–reeks of the Amerindie-brand phoniness that runs rampant every year at the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered. But thanks to perceptive direction by first-timer Jake Schreier and a reliably strong lead performance by Langella, what seems like an indulgent barrage of idiosyncrasies on paper makes for one of the richest sci-fi-influenced human dramas in recent years.
The movie’s success lies primarily in Schreier’s sober handling of the material; Frank’s robot is never milked for laughs. Whereas a scene in which the miniature-astronaut-looking machine replaces Frank’s Cap’n Crunch with a more nutritionally balanced breakfast (per its programming instructions) would have been styled as hijinks by a less confident director looking to distract the viewer with comedic relief, Schreier realizes that an overly lighthearted tone would jeopardize the film’s very real messages about aging and memory. That’s not to say the movie is dreary; on the contrary, Frank and his robot’s relationship often mirrors that of a buddy movie. The climactic burglary sequence and preceding practice scenes are rousing, with the robot’s precise abilities to pick locks and determine safe combinations serving as quality heist fodder. But what’s crucial is that Schreier never treats the high-concept as a high-concept, giving “Robot & Frank” the same baseline integrity as a realist work set in the present.
Langella’s performance is also integral to striking the right tone, treating Frank as a real character rather than just a goofy old sidekick to a robot (or worse, a hollow vehicle for the allegorical sci-fi elements). He credibly portrays the inner anguish of a man losing his mind to a disease and often not remembering that he has such a problem, only to be angered when he is misunderstood by his family and the public. Langella conveys so much with his face in important moments of character development, such as those in which he tells his children that he plans to eats lunch at a local restaurant which hasn’t been open for years.
“Robot & Frank” is not without its flaws, which uniformly involve the supporting characters. Most problematic is Frank’s daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), a hippie-dippy refugee worker who returns home to take care of him when she is horrified to learn that brother Hunter (James Marsden) pawned the task off to a machine. While the character thankfully never takes over the movie, Madison’s free-wheelin’ persona feels out of place, more sitcom than humanist. Additionally, a last-minute revelation about Susan Sarandon’s Jennifer, the librarian who Frank likes to flirt with, thrusts the film toward a needlessly sentimental conclusion that feels cheaper than what has come before it. But on the whole, “Robot & Frank” sheds welcome light on interpersonal relationships, getting old, and the eery affection that mankind feels for technology — a real miracle given its cutesy-sounding concept.