Robot & Frank (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hunter (James Marsden) lives about five hours away from his dad, Frank (Frank Langella), whose dementia is starting to deteriorate at a much faster rate. In order to help him out, the dutiful son buys his father a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to function as a health care aide. Although Frank meets the gesture with resistance, he warms up to it eventually given the fact that not only does it make things easier for him, it is also proves to be quite a reliable companion. Frank being a former cat burglar, he soon decides to train Robot to pick locks and other requisite skills to pull off successful heists.
Written by Christopher D. Ford and directed by Jake Schreier, while some will be compelled to consider “Robot & Frank” to be a story about a man with dementia, this is misleading because it is actually more about an unusual friendship, if one decides to call it as such, between man and machine. Frank’s gradual and then sudden memory loss is an important tool for us to want to believe in the relationship forged over a period of time.
It is easy to buy into the picture’s reality. The story is set in the near future where robots are found in homes and at work but the machines do not look polished. They look very manmade, angular and blocky, so it is not at all a stretch to imagine that they are creations meant to serve specific purposes. Also, there are no flying cars or wild fashion to catch our attention. So when Frank and Robot interact in public, for instance, we are drawn to them instead of what might be happening on the background.
Langella injects his character with a gruff sense of humor. Despite his character’s age and declining memory, I enjoyed that his personality is as vibrant as someone half his age. By playing him in such a way, the character is not seen as victim of a disease. When he talks about his plans of stealing from a rich yuppie, he look forward to how he and Robot will manage to pull it off and not how it might fail because of the memory problems.
The robot, too, is interesting. At one point, Frank and the machine get into the topic of self-awareness and what it means to be alive. Robot admits to Frank that it knows that it is not alive and so it does not care about, for example, having its memory erased. It is easy to see the limitation in the duo’s relationship. As humans, we value our experiences and our ability to remember them. Machines, on the other hand, remember information because that is the way they are programmed, not because they want to. Machines do not even want. They do as they are instructed via direct commands or patterns.
“Robot & Frank” is not without moments of genuine dramatic heft. While Frank’s interactions with his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), verged on annoying, I wished that there had been more scenes between Frank and the librarian named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) with whom he crushes on. The protagonist’s interactions with the latter have a lot of sweetness even though we suspect that it probably will not work out considering the circumstances. There is a dramatic punch involving the two in the back half, but it would have had more of an impact if we are given a more defined portrait of their relationship. Still, the film is not handicapped by a lack of depth in the romance because it is first and foremost about Robot and Frank.