Robot & Frank (2012)
“Friendship doesn’t have an off switch.”
Director: Jake Schreier
Cast: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, Susan Sarandon
Synopsis: Set in the near future, an ex-jewel thief receives a gift from his son: a robot butler programmed to look after him. But soon the two companions try their luck as a heist team.
With an overbearing condescension that marks him out as a fool (and potential burglary victim), software tycoon Jake (Jeremy Strong) blithely informs former burglar Frank (Frank Langella) that he is ‘our connection with the past’. What he’s really saying is that Frank is obsolete, detached from the modern world, and although plagued by the early stages of dementia, Frank is all too aware of it. He lives a semi-reclusive life, and his only visitor seems to be a thirty-something son (James Marsden) who visits him once a week more out of a sense of duty than love. We can’t really blame him, though. Frank spent two spells in prison, and missed seeing his children — he also has a daughter (Liv Tyler) who travels — growing up.
To ease the burden of a weekly 10-hour round trip, Frank’s son buys him a domestic robot which looks a bit like a Lego version of a Star Wars Storm Trooper. It’s programmed to carry out all Frank’s domestic chores and to care for his health, which means usurping his previously sloppy and largely sedentary lifestyle for a more active one. Naturally, Frank is none too pleased about this unrequested and unappreciated addition to his life, but Robot (it is never given a name) has no off switch and can only be turned off by a password known only to Frank’s son. Frank’s enmity toward this little mother hen initially grows proportionately to the improvements it makes in his life, especially when it encourages him to take up gardening as a project.
Although Frank is now retired from his life of crime, he still feels compelled to shoplift worthless candles that he has no use for from a store that replaced Harry’s, the restaurant he used to eat at, and which he keeps forgetting has now closed. When he’s one day confronted by the suspicious shop owner he surreptitiously returns the candle he had sneaked into his pocket back onto its shelf, but is later surprised to discover that Robot subsequently reclaimed it, believing that Frank had simply forgotten to return it to his pocket after the confrontation. It appears that Robot has a pretty murky understanding of the difference between right and wrong when the right thing conflicts with Frank’s welfare, a bug that the wily ex-burglar soon uses to his advantage.
Frank’s love of books brings him into regular contact with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the town librarian, with whom he likes to flirt as they search for any books he hasn’t read. The library is in the process of being digitised — which is where the odious Jake comes into the picture. It’s most valuable possession is an old illustrated copy of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, (not un-coincidentally, another ageing gentleman who finds it difficult to let go of the past), which Frank steals with the assistance of his Robot, disguised beneath an ill-fitting coat. When this robbery goes off smoothly, despite Frank leaving his reading glasses behind, he immediately begins planning a much bigger caper.
It’s unusual — and fairly refreshing — to see an SF movie that doesn’t rely too much on special effects. Although Robot & Frank is set in the near future, it does make a few stabs at including new technology into its world, but it remains an environment that is recognisable as the one we live in. Even the Robot is not too much of a futuristic concept, as shown in the amusing closing credits during which we’re shown real robots going through their paces. Frank interacts only marginally with this technology, and the way that Robot is practically forced upon him immediately had me expecting a variation on the usual buddy movie theme. But while Robot & Frank does go down that route, their growing relationship — or more accurately, seeing as Robot is merely a synthetic creature programmed to make logical responses to external stimuli, Frank’s growing fondness for his companion — provides the impetus for the main theme which is the preciousness of memory and how it defines us as human beings.
It’s Frank’s failing memory that makes him so reluctant to erase Robot’s, even though he knows by not doing so he runs the risk of having Robot inadvertently betray him when others — i.e. law enforcement officers — gain access to it. As Frank slowly, begrudgingly, comes to terms with his condition, he begins to understand that it is our memories that help shape the person we are, and that without them we have no way of becoming better people and atoning for the past. We also become detached from our lives — as is poignantly made clear in a late twist — in the same way that, as we grow older and technology passes us by, we inevitably become detached from a world that appears increasingly alien and impersonal.
For the most part, Robot & Frank provides a gentle insight into themes that are frequently explored in movies but rarely in such an offbeat style, although in the last couple of reels things go off track a little with a misguided attempt at broader comedy that works only fitfully. Langella — in a role that I can’t help thinking was probably written with Alan Arkin in mind — makes the part of Frank his own, and Christopher Ford’s script never shies away from providing us with a complete picture of the man. Frank isn’t really a nice guy. He’s a professional thief who neglected his kids and wife, and who shows little regret for most of the picture. And yet we still grow to like him despite ourselves, in much the same way that he grows to care for his Robot.