Robot & Frank (2012)
The dramatic success of Robot & Frank hinges the credibility of the two main protagonists. Frank Langella effortlessly plays a retired jewel thief Frank Weld who’s starting to have problems with his memory. His son Hunter (James Marsden) takes the only logical course of action and buys him a robot home help. The movie is set in the “near future” and so the idea of a deferring care of the elderly to machines seems worryingly credible. Plus, in this case, there is not a huge amount of love between father and son. Or so it first appears. There's more going on with this movie than first meets the eye. The plot is smarter than it first appears and makes some interesting social commentary.
As for “Robot”, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, the production designers succeed in making him convincing and credible. It would have been a fatal faux pas to employ an excess of CGI and produce a robot similar to Sonny in I, Robot. Less is clearly more in this case. Just think of Honda's Asimo and you’ll get why “Robot” works. Dancer Rachael Ma provides a wonderfully understated performance in the suit. Peter Sarsgaard soft spoken voice offers more than a nod and a wink to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember that this is the technology of the near future so it needs to be plausible to a contemporary audience.
As Frank gradually comes to terms with his new house mate, he manages to convince the machine to assist him in his criminal endeavours. “Robot” is specifically programmed to help establish a routine and projects for the benefit of stabilising Frank's cognitive abilities, so he agree to assist, as it serves a greater good. It is at this point that Robot & Frank could have taken the route of a more mainstream comedy, yet it proceeds in a very different direction. The narrative focuses on how returning to crime and more importantly exploring his relationship with “Robot” helps Frank's condition. “Robot” is in some ways a surrogate son, affording Frank a second chance to regain the lost opportunities he missed with Hunter while he was in prison.
The movie also touches on several other social issues. It explores autumn romances with the introduction of Librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) and how youth is often so enamored with itself and the cult of "finding" oneself, via his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). Perhaps some of these aspects could have been explored further, yet it would be wrong to be too critical of Christopher D. Ford's screenplay because there is still so much to praise. What Robot & Frank doesn't do is fall into the cliché of the machine with a soul. Robot points out himself that he is not alive and that much of what people feel towards him is simply anthropomorphic. Something he is programmed to exploit.
First-time director Jake Schreier, working with a low budget and the usual constraints facing an independent picture, manages to pull most aspects of Robot & Frank off successfully. He certainly does not make the mistake of applying too much sentimentality, or pursuing a broad comic tone. I can fully understand how this movie was a crowd pleaser at the 2011 Sundance festival. Robot & Frank wears its indie movie pedigree on its sleeve with its character driven, slice of life. The soundtrack by Francis and the Lights is also of note and deserves a mention. It is reassuring to know that movies such as this can still be made and that for some directors and production companies, narrative is still king and the key to good film making.