Sometime in the near future, Frank (Langella), a retired cat burglar, is becoming increasingly forgetful. Worried that their father may be losing his marbles, his family buy him a robot minder, only to find that Frank hasn’t lost any of his criminal smarts.
Despite over 50 years' experience in the business of show, Frank Langella comes armed with surprisingly little baggage. Most will know him for his Oscar-nominated performance in Frost/Nixon as the disgraced U. S. President; older readers may recall his Dracula in the overlooked 1979 version. Other than that, Langella has stayed shy of showy roles, preferring the stage to the screen and character parts to leading men. All of which makes him perfect for this ingenious, bittersweet drama about a man with a lot of hidden depth.
Interestingly for a film about appearances, Robot & Frank takes place in the near future, though this is really to give Sarsgaard’s soothingly voiced Robot — a lovely, white, LEGO-like piece of design — the necessary suspension of disbelief. Other than that, there is little to suggest sci-fi here, other than the odd piece of new technology, like a futuristic smart car that whips through the upstate New York countryside, or a super-advanced version of Skype that uses a widescreen plasma TV. Everything else is rooted in the now: there is nothing in this world to ward against ageing.
But if it seems that this is going to be an issue-of-the-week movie in disguise, director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford make some very shrewd choices. Though Frank’s memory is clearly going, and he really shouldn’t be living on his own, he’s a funny, cynical guy who wins our sympathies much more easily than his glib businessman son (James Marsden) and hippy-dippy daughter (Liv Tyler). And in his new android caretaker Frank sees not a mechanical life partner/slave for his encroaching old age and drudgery but the perfect partner in crime — one that doesn’t suffer last-minute nerves or leave fingerprints, one that can give this bored ex-con a new lease of life.
As the voice of Robot, Sarsgaard is wonderful — even rather poignant — but it is Langella that sells the movie as the shrewd, scheming Frank. The final twist (sly, but not unguessable), brings this bad boy down to earth, but Robot & Frank is a rare film with a floating moral compass and, as such, isn’t quite the cosy little parable that first sight might have you believe.
Forget the sci-fi trimmings and sentimental pay-off — this is a gleefully subversive character study of a charming but unapologetic rogue.