Editor’s note: With Robot and Frank hitting limited release this week, here is a re-run of our review from Sundance, originally published on January 22, 2012.
If Jake Schreier‘s Robot and Frank is too believed, the near future is very similar to the present – just with more hipsters enamored of things they don’t understand and more robots consigned to help with everyday tasks. Both come, oddly enough, to a head in Schreier’s feature debut about a man, his robot, and the things that bond them (including a distaste for said hipsters). The film is a wily mix of genres - Robot and Frank is a buddy comedy, a fish out of water story, a heist film, and a drama about aging in its many forms – and it mostly delivers on its immense promise when it works within the bounds of dry and clever comedy. But when the film allows itself to slack, it slumps almost irrevocably, and it never quite recovers from an unsatisfying and overemotional middle.
Veteran talent Frank Langella plays Frank, an aging huckster and cat burglar living out his twilight years in a cluttered house in upstate New York. Frank doesn’t have much time or interest for other people – his social world consists mainly of daily walks to the local library to speak to the one person he does seem to have interest in – town librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Otherwise, Frank’s in a bit of a haze – it’s understood early on that he’s got issues with memory and cognitive ability, and his relative isolation and cluttered house are but signposts of that. It’s Frank’s condition that sparks his son Hunter (James Marsden) to purchase him a top-of-the-line robot (voiced quite well by Peter Sarsgaard) to help clean the house, feed Frank, and monitor his health.
Frank, of course, reacts poorly to such an intrusion, balking at the robot’s new place in his life and his inability to turn his “appliance” off. Until Frank realizes that his caretaker robot doesn’t have any settings that prevent him from breaking the law, or even from really understanding it. A sidekick with nimble hands and no morals? Suddenly, Frank’s back in business. His target? A hip “consultant” who is taking over Jennifer’s library, as people are interested in re-experiencing books – by way of not actually touching any books. As Frank and his robot bond over their new endeavor, Robot and Frank finally catches its stride – dry, clever, crowd-pleasing, just wonderful stuff.
But as their plans (of course) spiral out of control, the film goes too dark with little in the way of real emotional pay-off. The middle of the film sags under the weight of Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford ceasing their clever genre play, giving over to simply piling on too many threads and too many messages. It’s a shame, though, because Langella, Schreier, and Ford effectively capture Frank’s mental state in ways that don’t feel cloying or false. That and the hilarious (and weirdly touching) friendship between Frank and his robot get muddled on the way to an unsatisfying ending that doesn’t really benefit anyone.
The Upside: Schreier’s future is well-crafted and imagined, a world with just slight tweaks that make it believable as a time just a few years from now. Clothing is a bit more structured, cars are a touch smaller, phones are flatter and clearer. And, when Robot and Frank is charming and dry and funny, it’s very charming and dry and funny.
The Downside: When Robot and Frank is not charming and dry and funny, it lags and sags and loses its eager-to-be-pleased audience.
On the Side: The question on everyone’s lips at the post-screening Q&A – “where is the robot?” Schreier answered, somewhat upsettingly, “in a comfortable storage facility somewhere outside of Los Angeles.” Who treats a star like that?!