I’ve been a fan of Frank Langella since I first saw him as Dracula in DRACULA (1979), a film I’ve never been all that nuts about, but I liked Langella in it. I’m always happy to see him in a movie, and he’s the main reason why I checked out ROBOT & FRANK (2012) the other day on Streaming Video.
ROBOT & FRANK is a quirky comedy-drama that tells the tale of retired cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) who lives alone away from his family and is dealing with a faulty memory. His adult son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard)— yes, this story takes place in the near future— to keep him company and to look after him.
Frank wants no part of the diminutive white Robot, but Hunter insists. When Frank discovers that the Robot has no sense of right or wrong, he realizes that he now has the perfect partner, a Robot who can help him pull off heists.
His first theft is small-scale, to impress his friend, the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), but later he sets his sights on his wealthy neighbor, a snotty young man who had insulted him at a library function in front of Jennifer. Frank manages to steal some very expensive jewels. With his criminal history, Frank is automatically a suspect, even at his age and in his ill mental condition, but Frank is still suave enough to remain one step ahead of the authorities, which he does, much to the annoyance of his family, especially his son Hunter, who constantly feels betrayed by his theft-obsessed father.
ROBOT & FRANK may sound goofy, but it’s not. It’s actually quite subdued and touching. While the heist storyline is easily the most interesting one in the movie, the story of Frank’s struggles with his family and his memory are both poignant and sad. On a deeper level, his relationship with the Robot serves as a metaphor for both his relationship with his family and his battle with his faulty memory. His conversations with the Robot often appear as dialogues with himself, while other times Frank seems to think the Robot is his son and speaks to him in ways that his son Hunter never seems to hear for himself.
The Robot definitely serves as an embodiment of Frank’s memory. When the authorities realize that the Robot’s memory most likely contains evidence of Frank’s crimes, the Robot tells Frank that the only way to protect himself is to erase his memory. Frank reacts strongly to this suggestion, refusing to do it, haunted both by the prospect of his own diminishing memory and the loss of a friend.
There’s also a very poignant scene near the end where the Robot tells Frank that he can’t give up, that he must escape so he can plan his next job, using nearly the exact same words Frank had used earlier when speaking to the Robot. Hearing this, Frank realizes a truth about himself that he had up until this point ignored. It’s the moment in the film where Frank changes.
Through most of the movie, Frank is self-absorbed, thinking only of his next heist, and this self-centered attitude comes at the expense of his relationship with his adult children. Frank is divorced and has no one else other than his adult children, son Hunter and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). When Madison objects to her father’s spending time with a robot, she decides to temporarily move in with him to give him a hand and the benefit of some human companionship, but Frank rejects her generosity, seeing it as intrusive, and he’s often rude and stand-offish towards her. He treats his son Hunter even worse. He prefers the company of the Robot because he sees it as a friend, someone who doesn’t judge him or tell him what to do.
Frank is interested in Jennifer, the local librarian, but he is unable to make any kind of commitment to her other than seeing her at the library. When she shows up at his doorstep for dinner at his invitation, he has forgotten that he invited her, and he tells her to come back later, slamming the door on her.
The best part of the movie however is watching Frank plan his heists with his partner the Robot. It’s a lot of fun watching Frank prove that he still possesses the skills and talents that he had as a younger man, as they have not deteriorated like his memory. His rich neighbor is also condescending to him, and so we feel no sympathy for this weasel of a man when Frank rips him off, and we certainly don’t want to see him have the satisfaction of watching the police arrest Frank. We’re rooting for Frank the entire way, and the wily old thief doesn’t disappoint.
Frank wants nothing to do with erasing his Robot pal’s memory, but the Robot tells him that it’s okay, that he’s not really a person. Langella’s pained expression as he considers this option speaks volumes. You know he wants no part of it. To him, the Robot is a person, and even though he doesn’t live and breathe, he should be treated as such. Frank also resists terminating the Robot’s memory because it hits too close to home, as he’s struggling to keep his own memory from fading.
Frank Langella is terrific in the lead role as Frank. In spite of the rough way he treats his adult kids, Frank really comes off as a sympathetic character, and a lot of this has to do with Langella’s performance. He’s crafty when he has to be, and he’s funny more often than not, especially when dealing with his snobbish neighbor Jake (Jeremy Strong). Langella also makes Frank a sympathetic character, as you can feel the angst he experiences at losing his memory. He’s also no sap. When he’s cold and cruel to his son Hunter, he does this with no regrets.
The supporting cast is also very good. Both James Marsden and Liv Tyler make their marks as Frank’s children, Hunter and Madison. Marsden is especially good at showing the pain he feels towards his cold self-centered father, who has never been there for his son. This is a much better pairing between Marsden and Langella than when they starred together in the misfire thriller THE BOX (2009) several years ago. X-MEN fans will remember Marsden as Cyclops in the X-MEN movies. He also was on the TV show 30 ROCK as Tina Fey’s boyfriend Criss.
Susan Sarandon adds class and style as Frank’s love interest, Jennifer. She’s also involved in a plot twist later in the movie that honestly didn’t do a whole lot for me, as I preferred the story without this revelation.
Robot is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, and he’s fine, although one thing that bothered me was that he sounded an awful lot like Hal from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and so I kept expecting him to say something sinister. The actual person in the robot suit was 4’ 11’’ actor Rachael Ma.
Jeremy Strong is also very good as Frank’s annoying neighbor Jake. He gets no sympathy when Frank takes him to the cleaners.
ROBOT AND FRANK tells a poignant story that is at times heartwarming, sad, and humorous. I really enjoyed the thoughtful screenplay by Christopher D. Ford. The character study of aged burglar Frank and his friendship with the Robot held my interest throughout.
Director Jake Schreier gives this movie a deliberate pace that matches the unhurried speed at which Frank himself moves, except of course when he flees the police in a speedy car. I also enjoyed how the camera often stayed at length on Frank’s face, so we could see clearly the emotions Langella gave the character.
All in all, ROBOT AND FRANK is a very satisfying movie. If you’re a fan of Frank Langella, you’ll love it, and if you enjoy stories about people dealing with aging, and the pressures that go along with it, especially in terms of family and memory loss, and the will to recapture one’s talents and skills from one’s youth, you’ll find ROBOT AND FRANK a rewarding experience.
It’s a story you won’t forget.