‘Robot and Frank’ had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release last year and – guess what? – I missed it. The film – the brainchild of director Jake Shreier and writer Christopher D. Ford, both making their debut – was trailered as a buddy movie/comedy thriller: grumpy old timer hooks up with omniscient android and they pull heists together; Dortmunder on a pension meets Twiki.
In fact, ‘Robot and Frank’ is much more than that. Much more. Its scant 85-minute running time includes ruminations on mortality, memory, regret, and the intrusions of technology. I’d even go as far as saying there’s a touch of Peckinpah in the depiction of a decidedly old-school anti-hero squaring off against the changing times … except where, say, Cable Hogue gets run down by the chief instrument of change (the automobile), Frank would have immediately spotted its potential as a getaway vehicle.
There’s a dash of ‘The Straight Story’ here, too … except where Alvin Straight is a basically honest man who saw too much during his war service, Frank is a former jewel thief who keeps his hand in with the odd bit of shoplifting. There’s no need for him to pursue this activity, and his clumsiness in doing so immediately alerts the proprietor’s suspicions, but Frank’s memory is beginning to fade and Shreier and Ford imply that this is his only way of keeping taut his lifeline to the past.
Until, that is, his well-meaning technophile son Hunter (James Marsden) gifts him with a robot. Voiced by Peter Sarsgaard – whose creation of its personality out of nothing more than a softly spoken, oh-so-reasonable monotone beautifully evokes HAL9000 – the robot is a butler/nurse/companion. And Frank takes against it vehemently from the start, a position echoed by his New Age-y technophobe daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). When, however, Frank realises that the robot has no concept of morality except as a dictionary definition, he’s quick to exploit the opportunity. Soon, man and robot are bonding over lock-picking, architect’s plans and the finer points of bypassing alarm systems.
Prior to his reinvigoration courtesy of the robot, Frank’s days have been spent at a marked-for-closure library, kindling a tentative romance with soon-to-be-downsized librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Learning that the entire stock of books is going to be scanned then pulped – the near future setting of the film takes on a sort of ‘Fahrenheit 451’-lite vibe at this point – Frank decides to stage a break in and liberate an antique copy of ‘Don Quixote’, intending it as a gift for Jennifer.
(I don’t need to labour the choice of book, do I?)
Heist or no heist, Frank finds himself invited to a fundraiser for the new digital “library experience” designed to replace the facility – a project spear-headed by unctuous entrepreneur Jake (Jeremy Strong). Recognising a con-man when he sees one, and wondering how much Jake’s skimming off the top to keep trophy wife Ava (Bonnie Bentley) in the jewellery to which she’s become accustomed – Frank lines up Jake and Ava’s out-of-the-way designer home for his next mark. Then Madison descends on robot and Frank’s cozy crime-tastic idyll armed with a million hippie-drippy life lessons and the override code for the robot, and the window of opportunity for the heist grows dangerously narrower.
The crime caper aspects of ‘Robot and Frank’ occupy about a third of the movie, and Shreier gets the tone spot on. Langella’s masterfully understated performance mines a rich seam of wry humour. Marsden and Tyler, in small roles, play off him well, while Sarandon sparkles. Indeed, it’s thanks to her that the resolution of the Frank/Jennifer subplot – the only moment of jarring contrivance in Ford’s script – scrapes by on a modicum of warmth and charm.
This, however, is the only almost-flub in the whole film. That Shreier manages to enfold his oddball crime caper in a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking character study makes ‘Robot and Frank’ a real gem ripe for discovery. It’s the best film on ageing this side of ‘The Straight Story’ and even if the final scenes find Frank in a cocoon of conformity, in terms of both acceptable social behaviour and the enforced dependencies of senior citizen, then the wily ol’ devil still manages to get one over of the changing times before the end credits roll. It’s tempting to say Peckinpah would have approved, but he’d probably have had L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin turn in the robot for the bounty!