There’s something rather appealing about a feature centred around the friendship between an elderly man and his robot, and any enthusiastic expectations placed upon such a film are soon justified. Robot & Frank (2012) is a beautifully arranged debut production from Jake Schreier, as we follow the relationship between Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) and Frank (Frank Langella). Set in the not-too-distant future, Frank lives alone, suffering from memory loss and confusion, and struggling to shake off his unhealthy inclination towards larceny – a hobby that has landed him in prison on two occasions in the past.
Frank’s children Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) are worried about him, so the former decides to buy him a new gift; a robot butler. Averse to the idea of needing any assistance, Frank wants nothing to do with his new companion, however once he realises he can manipulate the machine into helping him commit robberies, he grows rather fond of Robot, and an unlikely friendship blossoms between them.
Although set in the future, Schreier intelligently makes the new world of Robot & Frank accessible to the audience as we see the universe through the eyes of Frank, effectively representing our generation in a film that is set roughly forty years or so ahead. His guarded, barbed take on life comes from a man evidently out of touch with the modern world, so therefore it helps us to understand the future as we see it through his perceptions, enhanced by the fact he suffers memory loss and remains trapped in his own past – which is our present. Schreier has also done a fine job in portraying the time-set, as the changes in technology and the way of life are there for all to see, remaining subtle and even plausible.
Langella turns in a quite fantastic performance as our protagonist, in what is an endearing and sincere portrayal of a man struggling to come to terms with growing old and coping with Alzheimer’s. Langella strikes the perfect balance between poignancy and deadpan humour, equally as touching as he is both charming and witty. He encapsulates the more devious side to Frank’s demeanour also, as you never once question his collusive, thieving history. Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon is impressive as the local librarian Jennifer, while Sarsgaard is also brilliant as Robot. Despite the automated voice, there is something essentially human about him.
Despite the relative inconsistencies in Frank’s mental diagnosis, Robot & Frank makes for immensely enjoyable viewing, tackling poignant themes yet avoiding mawkishness in any way. There are several themes explored we’ve seen countless times over in film, but Schreier manages to make this feature feel unique nonetheless, in a picture that is perfectly, and intelligently heart-warming.
This review was originally published on 12 October, 2012, as part of our London Film Festival coverage.