The Sundance Film Festival award-winner “Robot & Frank” is set in the near future, where robots are part of everyday society and as common as toasters.
Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) stars as the titular Frank, a cantankerous former cat burglar who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), is getting increasingly worried about Frank’s state, and regularly drives 10 hours round-trip to check on him. But the commute is starting to wear him down.
So Hunter shows up at his father’s home one day with a robot in tow. He informs Frank that the robot will be his caretaker, but Frank will have none of it. Hunter threatens him with a choice: Either the robot stays or Frank moves to a nursing home.
So Frank reluctantly lets the robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard) stay. The robot does everything, even cooks and cleans.
It’s also specially programmed to administer a health regimen. A structured daily routine is important, the robot says, to build sharp thinking.
Frank at first doesn’t cooperate. But slowly he starts giving in, going on walks or eating his healthy meals. He pretty soon admits to actually enjoying the food, even.
The robot and Frank are, in a sense, becoming friends, although the robot has no emotions. But Frank finds that for the first time in a long while, he has a constant companion, one that can’t judge him.
He’s drawn to the robot’s innocence, but then discovers he can take advantage of it. Soon, he has the robot convinced that planning a heist will build his mental thinking. The robot sees logic in this, and begins to help Frank make plans to steal a prized, rare book from the library (actual paper books are rare in the future).
But they don’t stop there. Frank gets the robot to let him start planning another heist. But when they pull it off, things get messy when Frank is nailed as a suspect.
The film deftly blends sci-fi with comedy and drama. It’s also part caper film, part character study. It’s oddly endearing, driven by Langella’s colorful performance. It’s masterful acting — he lets us see the wheels spinning in his head. And his eyes light up at the thought of stealing again.
For Frank is not a good guy. He’s manipulative, cranky. He was a poor father, and spent time in prison for a robbery that went wrong. His conscience doesn’t seem to exist — he doesn’t mind doing bad things because they make him feel good.
It’s a rich conflict, and the film eventually becomes a thoughtful meditation on family, remorse and aging. We can’t help but feel sorry for Frank, even as he makes us hate him.