Don’t be fooled by the lackluster poster or the prospect of Robot & Frank as awash in feel-good gooeyness — something better than that awaits. Yes, I’d have to admit that this is a sweet little movie, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and there are levels of sweetness.The sweetness factor here is on the low and palatable side — due partly to a screenplay with larceny in its heart, but due even more so to the wonderful Frank Langella, who keeps a nicely acid-tongued tone in a performance that never tries for unearned sympathy. Even when the sympathy is earned, he accepts it, but grudgingly. Now, don’t misunderstand: This is not a great film. First-time director Jake Schreier delivers a solid movie that can at best be described as workmanlike in terms of stylishness. (That may actually be in the film’s favor in one sense.) And if there’s anything especially deep here, it lies in a subtext that requires younger viewers to realize that in the unspecified future of the film, they have more in comon with Frank than they have with the characters who are their age now.
Langella plays Frank Weld, a retired jewel thief, who lives alone in upstate New York — and whose memory is quickly going downhill. (We only find out how far it’s gone fairly late in the film.) He’s divorced, and his son Hunter (James Marsden making up some for the film Hop) and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) live nowhere nearby. Hunter has been grudgingly making the 10-hour trip to see his father — who definitely doesn’t appreciate the visits — every week. Frank mostly whiles away his time playing at burgling his own house and hanging out at the library with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the pretty and patient librarian. His other primary amusement seems to be shoplifting carved soap animals from the boutique that now inhabits the space where his favorite restaunrant used to be. This all changes when Hunter brings him a health-care robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard in a kind of more benign Hal 9000 voice) to cook, clean and keep Frank on a regimen.
At first, Frank is resistant to the whole idea. He doesn’t like the idea of a robot and in fact suspects it will murder him in his sleep. Frank spends the first few days insulting the machine (especially when it throws out his Froot Loops). He views it as part of the hateful modernity that’s creeping in on him — the sort of thing that’s causing the library to be shut down as a place for books by the loathesome Jake (Jeremy Strong), who seems to specialize in making insulting remarks about Frank’s age. But it turns out that there’s something about the robot Frank doesn’t know: it hasn’t been programmed to obey the law. Soon he has a new partner in crime — and since the planning of their first heist clearly sharpens Frank’s mind, the robot can’t really argue against it. And Frank can’t help but become emotionally attached to the robot.
It’s all clever, engaging and moving without being sappy. One aspect of the plot concerning Sarandon’s character seems a little far-fetched, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s really damaging. The previously noted lack of much in the way of style from director Schreier may in fact help to keep the film’s vision of the future from getting in the way of the human aspects of the story it’s telling. (I do question the decision to shoot the film in the full widescreen process, which does nothing to enhance anything and is used indifferently.) It’s not a movie that’s apt to change anyone’s life, but it’s certainly 90 solid minutes of compelling, thoughtful entertainment. Rated PG-13 for some language.