Robot & Frank

Directed By: Jake Schreier

Starring: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and Susan Sarandon

Indie cinema is all about the future this weekend.  With David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis and Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank, we've got two different movies at the indie box office that look ahead to what’s next for mankind.  While I'll talk about Cosmopolis later this weekend, I'd like to take a little time to talk about the futuristic comedy-drama Robot & Frank and how an aging former jewel thief is forced to live with a technology he thinks is absolutely ridiculous, a home health aide robot.

Frank (Frank Langella) is old.  With age, he now suffers from frequent memory loss and possibly the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.  Divorced for the last 30 years, there's only one person taking care of him, his son Hunter (James Marsden).  Frank's daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off traveling the world for her new job, so it's up to Hunter.  The problem is that he lives five hours away and drives up to his father's home in Upstate New York every weekend, costing him valuable time with his own kids.  With Frank's declining mental state, Hunter opts to buy him a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) as a home health aide.

Frank is initially reluctant to embrace his new robot butler, but he has no choice.  The robot is there when he wakes up and when he goes to bed.  Though Frank would rather die eating cheeseburgers, the robot makes his breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and Frank now is on a low-sodium diet.  The robot even follows him into town when he goes to visit his lady friend Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) at the local library.  Afterward, Frank goes to a candle store that was once a diner he frequented named Harry’s, and this thief at heart tries to steal something.  However, the shop lady (Ana Gasteyer) is wise about Frank, a former cat burglar, and calls him out on his suspicious activities.  Quick on his feet, Frank stealthily puts the product he was stealing back.  In the meantime, it just so happens that his robot decides to slip it in his bag.  When Frank realizes that morality and a sense of right and wrong are not part of the robot's programming, he's found his new best friend.  The robot and Frank are going to clean up!

Robot & Frank is an endlessly charming film.  Director Jake Schreier has put together one damn good movie.  It's hilarious and filled with lots of sharp quips from both the robot and Frank.  It's touching as we watch a lasting friendship build between an old man and a piece of hardware.  It's piercing in its commentary on how we take care of our elderly (or don't).  With all this in mind, Robot & Frank is a film that hinges on the performances Schreier pulls out of Frank Langella and Peter Sarsgaard, and these two really deliver some impeccable performances. 

Frank Langella is perfect as a grumpy old man.  He’s not doing anything that robot wants him to do.  He would rather eat cheeseburgers than cauliflower.  He would rather read books than get some exercise with the robot.  He would rather plan heists than garden for mental stimulation.  Langella's Frank has no problem telling it like it is.  At the same time, there's a more serious aspect to his performance.  We're dealing with a man with memory problems.  With this come lots of drama and lots of headaches for our titular character.  Langella has the acting chops to make this a substantive part of his character.

Peter Sarsgaard is also incredibly hilarious as the robot.  Because this robot is an advanced simulation of a human being, he's talking trash, rocking a fashionable black cape in heists, and threatening to self destruct when necessary.  He's just as funny as Langella.  Sarsgaard's voicing of this robot perfectly complements Langella's grumpy old Frank.  He can make monotonous quips with Langella's character unbelievably funny.  Whether helping plan a heist or trying to avoid getting molested, Peter Sarsgaard's interpretation of this robot is consistently entertaining.

The supporting cast also delivers plenty of laughs.  Susan Sarandon is always enjoyable, and nothing changes with her performance as Jennifer.  James Marsden offers welcome practicality as Frank's son Hunter.  Liv Tyler brings a breath of fresh air and her own silly brand of comedy to the film as Frank's daughter Madison.  Jeremy Sisto and Ana Gasteyer also bring plenty of laughs.

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Robot & Frank, we've had two movies about older folks opening and closing the summer season at the indie box office.  Frankly speaking, Robot & Frank is much better.  There's no melodrama about getting old.  There is, however, some surprisingly sharp commentary on society's probable future.  As we rely on technology more and more to take care of our elderly, there's going to come a point at which we go too far (probably with robots).  Look what happens with Frank when Hunter gives him a robot. The man gets back into a life of crime.  In some way, shape, or form, human interaction is necessary in taking care of older folks.

With Frank Langella and Peter Sarsgaard putting on one hell of a show alongside Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and half the Suburgatory cast, Robot & Frank gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have a couple of wine coolers with this one.