There’s a lot to love about “Robot & Frank.” Maybe a little bit too much to love.
The new indie flick takes place sometime in the near future, in a time when robot butlers abound, to much reverie by the younger generation. Unfortunately, the protagonist is an aged, forgetful, lonely man named Frank (Frank Langella). He’s gifted a robot — programmed to maintain the old man’s health — by his son Hunter (James Marsden), who is tired of the responsibility of looking after Pop.
The premise of the movie makes the plot seem deceptively simple. Robot and Frank get off to a rocky start, but slowly warm up to each other, their relationship lending itself to questions of where humans can find unlikely friendships and what it means to be emotional versus mechanical.
Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) takes a stance against the use of robots as slaves, bringing politics into the mix. On top of that, Frank is a divorced ex-convict and has tense relationships with both of his children, calling for some exploration of familial bond and obligation. As Frank and Robot begin planning robberies, justified as mechanisms of mental stimulation, the film touches upon treatment for dementia in the elderly and the often blurry line between delusion and reality for patients suffering memory loss.
To some, such interwoven complexities might seem appealing. After all, the storyline offers something for everyone, whether it be futurism, controversial technologies, the emotional strife of estranged family members or the ethics associated with dementia. For me, the effect was more disappointing. I felt overloaded by overlapping themes. I walked out of the theater confused as to the film’s intent and what I should have taken from it.
There’s undoubtedly plenty of thought-provoking material to indulge in, but it’s almost too much.
“Robot & Frank” suffers from being stretched too thin. It tries too hard to be interesting and complicated, instead coming across as overwhelming for the casual movie-goer.
Still, I can’t call it a bad movie, because it’s far from unentertaining or tedious. I meant it when I said there’s a lot about this film to really love.
It showcases some brilliant first-time film writing by Christopher D. Ford, who has paired the emotional themes of family, identity and aging with an unexpected flair for dry humor in the characters’ dialogue. The robots’ respond to questions like “How are you doing?” with answers like “I’m functioning normally,” and these moments are reason enough to sit through 90 minutes of winding plot.
The movie also boasts a stellar performance by Frank Langella, who plays his role with a subtlety that cannot go unappreciated. He curses with masterful comedic timing, displays the rugged exterior of a man obdurate in preserving dignity and independence and assumes the nuanced expressions of a confused elderly man. He does this all in proper balance to make his character incredibly likeable and sympathetic.
I could go on naming the various merits of this indie flick. For one, it’s an indie flick. It presents a certain enjoyable whimsicality. It has James Marsden. It’s relatively fast-paced, avoiding the overly drawn-out, cheesy ending scenes. It features some adorable old-age flirting between Frank and local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).
It is with good reason that “Robot & Frank” is a Sundance prizewinner. It truly is a beautifully executed movie with remarkable cast performances — a worthy watch for anyone normally excited by the genre.
Of course I could have done without quite so many clashing themes. Madison is a particularly futile character, and less of her political mumbo-jumbo would have probably improved the film as a whole, if only by eradicating one confusing, unnecessary side story. But I’ll still maintain that on the whole, Robot, Frank and “Robot & Frank” are all pretty lovable.