Some movie concepts are just too amazing on paper to believe that they actually exist. You want them to, often desperately, but the very idea is just the right combination of perfectly whimsical and niche in scope that you can’t imagine anyone would ever invest in turning it into a product they’d then have to sell to normal people. Thankfully, sometimes I’m proven wrong, and then I get a weird, too-beautiful-to-exist movie like Robot & Frank.
Set in an ambiguous near future (probably 20 or 30 years ahead, if I had to guess), Robot & Frank is the story of an aging man named Frank (Frank Langella) who suffers from increasingly serious Alzheimers. Frank’s son (the woefully underappreciated James Marsden) brings him a tool to help him get by: a robot companion, short and faceless, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, to help take care of him and provide him with a routine and guidance that he needs to get by safely.
Frank, initially hesitant about the robot, quickly takes to his new artificial friend when he discovers the robot has an aptitude for his former line of work: robbery. A retired jewel thief, Frank convinces the robot that planning new jobs will help keep his mind sharp, and the robot and Frank get pulled into a variety of small time heists around their well-to-do neighborhood.
That’s a ridiculous premise on paper, but thankfully Robot & Frank is content to take its time to set up the world so that it doesn’t feel that far fetched when it actually happens. This near future is recognizable as our own, just with the slow creep of early artificial intelligences, small and slicker smart phones, and strange compact electric cars. Frank lives in a small town that feels reliably old, just now starting to get the attention of the rich hipster 20-somethings who want to move in and update the place.
Frank’s life is a generally sad one before the robot shows up. He drifts through the town, forgetting that his favorite place to eat closed down years ago, shoplifting compulsively from the curio store in town. The one place of solace is the library, where he goes not only to read but to flirt with the librarian (played by Susan Sarandon). But even that is a relic, about to age into obsolescence. The new money is taking over the underfunded library to turn it into a historical place where they can go to read their digital books and listen to their strange electronic future-music, the whole concept of books being almost completely foreign to them.
With the robot, though, he quickly finds someone who is at least marginally interested in hearing about his life. His children seem unwilling to engage about his past, treating him like a burden, but the robot initially considers any topic fair game since it will keep Frank communicative and sharp. But talking about heists is just a small leap to actually committing them, especially when you’re bored and have a conspirator who is programmed to help you with whatever you need. And thus the movie settles into this cozy heist framework, with Frank and the robot casing places and pulling increasingly large jobs, even as Frank struggles with defining the increasing role this inanimate object has in his life.
If this sounds a little precious, that’s because in many ways it is. Robot & Frank is a decidedly light- and warm-hearted comedy on the face of it, the kind of movie that goes for the gut with disarming humor only to bring in the inevitable problems of a lead character that is suffering a very real and very scary mental decline. But that edge of the facts of the situation helps propel it into a place that manages to be both uncomfortable and very funny, as Frank eventually comes under suspicion and has to try to dodge the cops once again in order to keep out of jail and keep his friend from being confiscated as evidence.
So much of this movie is predicated on that friendship between Frank and the robot, and it’s interesting to see a movie so aggressively double down on a concept that might rest firmly in the uncanny valley. The robot doesn’t have a face, to be sure, but it still has not-quite-human movements that never let you forget what it is, even as it becomes something we empathize with alongside Frank. The concept of robot personhood and rights are even vaguely touched upon in the movie itself, obviously a problem that exists in the world but seems remote in Frank’s sleepy forest hamlet. So while the movie is decidedly very soft science fiction, that’s simply a thing dictated by the scope of the story.
One could easily imagine more futuristic stories taking place in this world, but Robot & Frank thankfully focuses almost entirely on the intimate and innately human. It’s the kind of movie that is good for laughs and still might cause you to tear up towards the end, a testament to unlikely friendship and the ravages of inevitable aging. It’s rare to find science fiction films that I can’t imagine anyone hating, but Robot & Frank is the one. If you have this playing near you, take anyone who has two eyes and a heart and show them something special.
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