LITTLE ROCK Quizzical and sweet, Robot & Frank is a movie about losing things, an Alzheimer’s allegory about an old man nearing the end of his usefulness and a bit of temporarily enabling technology. It is set in the “near future,” which looks much like the now except the cell phones and some of the cars are thinner, and widescreen Skype seems to be the preferred manner of interpersonal communication. And robots, while still too expensive to be ubiquitous, have taken over some of humanity’s drudge work.
Mr. Darcy, for instance, reshelves books down at the library, although not for long because the content is to be digitized and the volumes mausoleumed away, presumably to protect them from light and the oily touch of humans. This is distressing to Frank (Frank Langella), the aging retiree who regularly visits the place, to check out and reread actual novels. And whether he realizes it of not, he also goes there to flirt with the gentle librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who is attentive and patient and resigned to the brave new world that’s coming.
But Frank, we soon realize, is a man unstuck in time. He shambles around his bucolic upstate New York town, and is surprised to find his favorite diner converted to a gift shop. Irritated, he shoplifts a bar of soap, and incurs the wrath of the shopkeeper, who obviously knows him and his predilections.
Frank was a “second-story man,” a cat burglar who emphasized taking value for the ounce. He did two stretches in prison - one for tax evasion, like Capone - and he retains his amorality if not a full complement of wiles. His children - James Marsden and Liv Tyler - worry about him; he forgets things and asks his son how things are at Princeton, the school from which the young man graduated 15 years before.
And so the son arranges for a helpmate for his father. Robot looks like the stereotypical ’60s futurist’s idea of a robot, clad in Storm Trooper white metal with black rubber accents and a visor that suggests a hidden visage. As voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, Robot sounds a bit like Hal from 2001, which ought to cue us in that he might not exactly be the filmmaker’s best guess at what a personal assistant ’bot might look like (without getting too mucked down in the symbolism, let’s say that he represents the impingement of technology on Frank, who understandably resents being assigned a baby sitter).
But it isn’t long before the sly old crook finds a loophole in Robot’s programming, and begins to exploit his new toy. If the idea is to keep Frank’s brain engaged and working, then maybe there’s a project they can work on together.
Robot & Frank never hits the easy and obvious beats of a buddy comedy; there’s no sentimental bonding between man and mecha man. Similarly, though it feints toward romance, the relationship between Frank and Jennifer ultimately resolves in an unexpectedly bittersweet way. In the hands of an actor of less haughty gravity than Langella, Frank might have come off as pathetic, rather than heartbreaking, and the movie could have gone soft and soppy.
It doesn’t, but it isn’t entirely satisfying either. I found the end abrupt and I wish the filmmakers had explored some of the themes they touched on a little more deeply. It’s not often that I’ll say a movie ended too soon, but this one does.
I think there’s also a danger of someone feeling baited and switched by the movie’s trailer, which seems to suggest a cutesy comedy. Whatever it is, Robot & Frank is not that. It’s hard and cool at its center, and Langella - who drags a bit of his similar, exceptional performance as an intellectual in Starting Out in the Evening into his fading criminal - is remarkable as a man who can’t remember all he has lost.
Robot & Frank 87 Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, (voice of) Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Jake Schreier
Rating: PG-13, for language
Running time: 89 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 09/07/2012
Print Headline: Robot & Frank