Jake Schreier | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
In “the near future”, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ageing jewel thief in denial about his dementia, contenting himself with visits to the local library, which is being taken over by a bunch of yuppies to turn into “the library experience”, and shoplifting from the beauty store that used to be his favourite restaurant. Concerned for his wellbeing, his son (James Marsden) gets him some home help in the form of a humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially reluctant to accept its presence, when the robot attempts to help by also shoplifting from the beauty store, Frank senses an opportunity…
Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, complete with futuristic-looking cars, a casual robotic presence, and glass-like tablets and smartphones, Robot & Frank is really a drama about, amongst other things, old age. The SF elements provide an interesting angle, of course, and this is a well-imagined very-near-future world (it was inspired in part by current attempts in Japan to develop robots specifically to care for the elderly), but the film’s joys and illuminations lie outside the sci-fi elements. Asimovian concepts of robot self-awareness/consciousness are touched upon, but they’re in service of one of the film’s central themes/stories rather than as an end to itself.
Where the film is most effective is in the friendship between Frank and his robot. Some have described it as a buddy movie, and while it doesn’t offer the rollicking action and humour that tag normally implies, it’s not a wholly inaccurate label. When Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) suddenly appears home halfway through and turns the robot off (part of a half-realised almost-subplot about robot rights, or something), we not only feel Frank’s (temporary) loss of his friend, but also urge the film to turn the robot back on and get back to what’s really making the movie work. The event serves a purpose (it’s the point Frank realises he’s stopped just putting up with the damn robot and actually come to appreciate its presence), but still.
The heist elements, played up in some of the film’s marketing, probably to make it sound exciting, are actually rather low-key. Burglary would be a more accurate term. What I’m trying to say is, don’t expect Ocean’s Eleven with an old man and his robot sidekick. There are altogether different delights, including a wry sense of humour that surfaces rarely enough to lend the ‘gags’ extra emphasis but frequently enough to keep the amusement ticking over (avoid the trailer, it contains one of the best laughs). The emotional bond that develops is affecting, in the subtly-built way that you may not see coming. When the end rolls around, you may even feel a tear in your eye.
Robot & Frank is the kind of film that should appeal outside of apparent genre constraints — heck, the way technology’s going, it might not be that long before it’s just a straight-up drama. Equally, this is of a branch of science-fiction we see all too rarely on the big screen, but which is fertile ground for those wishing to explore it: using fantastical concepts to explore and enlighten our own world. Even if you learn nothing revelatory about old age and the rigours of dementia, the friendship between the robot and Frank is reason enough to enjoy.
The UK TV premiere of Robot & Frank is on BBC One tonight at 11:15pm. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 1:40am on Thursday 28th May.