Funny, touching, and clever, Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is, all at once, an astute look at the near future, a chuckle-worthy heist movie, a pure exercise in science fiction, and a sweet little drama. It’s rare for a small indie film like this to work so well on all its levels. Perhaps by not reaching too high (the film may seem high-concept, but is really rather simple), Robot & Frank was able to achieve all its goals with a wistful ease. The script (by Christopher D. Ford) was careful and complete without feeling arch or clever. This film is further proof that sci-fi need not be high-budget spectacle (other films to prove it: Primer, Another Earth, Never Let Me Go), and can actually do a good little job exploring the human condition, our characters, and our memories.
The not-too-distant future. Frank (Frank Langella, always amazing) is a bona fide curmudgeon who lives alone in a remote house in upstate New York. He is classically stubborn, and refuses to abide by the advice doled out by his patronizingly doting children (tightwad James Marsden and flower child Liv Tyler). Frank is also a compulsive shoplifter, and we come to learn that he is an ex-con who used to plan down-and-dirty heists back in his formative years. These days, he resents his status as an ex-boogeyman. To help around the house, Frank’s son buys him a robot butler, who has an annoyingly soothing voice (voice by Peter Sarsgaard), and a disturbingly life-like penchant for tut-tutting. The robot (body played by dancer Rachael Ma) seems capable of cleaning house, cooking healthy meals, and keeping Frank on his regular health regimen, which has the audience thinking of how close we may be to actually having robot butlers. Eventually Frank learns that the robot really has no programming against theft, and, to keep himself sharp, he plans a heist with the robot’s abilities in mind. For the heist sequences, Frank and the robot seem like a legitimate old-timey crime duo.
But the twee heist plans and Frank’s wacky misanthropy isn’t what the film is about. Robot & Frank is about memory. It uses technology to explore the small parts of ourselves that we don’t want to let go of and, perhaps eventually, must in our old age. Soon the robot’s memory files become a key player in the drama and a symbolic parallel to Frank’s own memory.
A further conceit: In the near-future, books have become somewhat obsolete. Susan Sarandon plays a friendly librarian, a potential love interest for Frank, who has to watch in contained chagrin as a young hipster entrepreneur decides to keep her library alive by converting it into a club-like “community space,” where other young hipsters can come and celebrate “the tradition of printed information.” And while the continued use of paper books has been recently threatened by those sacrilegious e-readers (however curmudgeonly it sounds, I announce that you’ll never find me behind one of those things) a future of bookless libraries may be the actual future of reading. It was a small world detail that I appreciated.
It’s rare that a big-budget sci-fi film will actually bother to be about human ideas and concepts, often opting for fantasy machines and action-packed chases. Sure, there’s the occasional Prometheus, but I don’t have to point out how divisive that film was. Robot & Frank is a sweet little drama first, loaded with cute moments, funny asides, clever heists, and some amazing acting from Frank Langella. And sweet it is. Perhaps bittersweet.