[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival 2012. It has been reposted to coincide with the film's national release.]
After screening at Sundance, Robot and Frank was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and Samuel Goldwyn Films. The independent feature has a surprisingly star-studded cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, James Marsden, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot. ("And _______ as the voice of the robot" should be a credit in every movie, by the way.) I had the privilege of seeing it last night in Brooklyn as part of the Sundance USA satellite screening program.
There's a lot going for this debut feature from director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford. Its kooky pairing of an old curmudgeon and a kind robot helper wins immediate points from me. There's a light touch to so much of the film, and a lot of charm and humor. Yet watching Robot and Frank, it became clear that while there was a lot for me to like, there wasn't enough for me to love.
Robot and Frank
It's the not too distant future; 10, maybe 15 years tops. Frank Langella plays Frank, a retired cat burglar going through senility and memory loss. He stumbles through his sty of a house in his dirty pajamas -- without joy, without purpose. He sometimes goes to town to flirt with the cute librarian (Sarandon) and to run petty errands. Frank's son Hunter (Marsden) decides to give him a robot helper with the intent of improving his health. Frank's resistant to the idea at first, but he learns to love the robot because it isn't programmed to be moral. His robot may be able to help him pull off some jobs.
After a shaky start (a bit too much expository dialogue for my taste), Robot and Frank really begins to endear. Frank is played convincingly by Langella, and his senile daze melts away with the excitement of a heist. Gone is the haze, in comes the precision of an expert thief. The robot (played by an actress in an ASIMO-like costume) goes from being a servant to a sort of devoted, soft-spoken friend. Sarsgaard's robot voice is the sort of thing you'd expect from a kind service droid, reminiscent of HAL in 2001 or GERTY in Moon.
Given the interplay between Frank and his robot, it's surprising that they put a bit too much exposition into the beginning. The conversations between Frank and the robot are often revealing, allowing a steady stream of details to garnish this budding friendship. Frank is lonely and needs someone to talk to, which opens him up a bit; the robot has read Frank's files and medical records, and offers kind reminders. The central relationship in the film is also the perfect vessel for revealing information.
It's this crucial relationship that's the greatest strength of the movie. There's a real sense of life to it. Frank is also grouchiest to people during these moments, yet he becomes kinder to his robot friend. In its middle-section, Robot and Frank is mostly pure pleasure. This is a misfit buddy movie at its heart, and when it's easygoing and light, it does what it does effortlessly and with real wit. These odd friendships are the best kind. I rooted for both the old man and the robot to succeed.
Surprisingly, the family scenes in Robot and Frank don't seem as alive as the robot scenes. There's too much familiarity with these situations -- the successful son who remains devoted to his emotionally distant father, the kindly daughter with high-minded ideals (Tyler) who checks in with her poor daddy. It's strange to put it this way, but the family material is less human than the robot material. It gets in the way of a beautiful friendship, and it's a relief when our focus is just back on Frank and his pal.
But just when it's getting good in an absurd way, there's a fork in the road and we veer left toward schmaltz. It all has to do with a revelation that's meant to have lots of emotional punch. It just doesn't hold up when you think about it. The human part of me says it sort of makes sense thematically, but that robotic (or Vulcan) part of me says it doesn't make sense logically. Schmaltz is a one-way street, and it's hard to get back on the main road when you're nearing the end. Robot and Frank doesn't get back on the main road.
Dwelling on this sentimentality for a few hours made me think of the design of the film's robot. It's clean, it's sleek, it's even a little adorable (as far as robots go); it's the inoffensive aesthetic of Apple products. In a sense, that's what Robot and Frank winds up becoming. This robot doesn't have all the messy parts of Johnny Five or WALL-E; the movie doesn't have all the intangible human parts of Short Circuit 2 or WALL-E.
Still, there's lots to enjoy in that middle section despite all of that too-familiar human stuff. It's a movie that's more cute than beautiful, more sentimental than resonant; ultimately, Robot and Frank is likable, but it's just not lovable.