Robot & Frank (M) – 3.5 stars
Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, James Marsden
DIRECTOR JAKE SCHREIER
REVIEW SHANNON HARVEY
You'll like this if you liked Bicentennial Man, Driving Miss Daisy, Grumpy Old Men, The Stepford Wives, Surrogates, 2001, Iron Giant, E.T.
A cranky old coot and a humanoid robot become BFFs in Robot & Frank, a modest yet moving US drama that sees 74-year-old Oscar nominee Frank Langella in career-best form and giving a masterclass in ice-cool self-awareness.
It's the debut film from young writer Christopher D. Ford and his film-school director friend Jake Schreier, and was shot in just 20 days for $2.4 million. But you'd never know. It looks and plays more like a $10-$15 million film with its setting in the near future, when humans are beginning to use robots for various domestic tasks.
Frank (Langella) is a retired jewel thief and ex-con who lives alone in his isolated home in upstate New York. The dishes and laundry are building up and he's beginning to suffer increasing bouts of dementia. He still visits his favourite restaurant that shut down years ago and shoplifts from a gift store as if to see if he's still got it.
Still, the old codger has enough marbles left to flirt with the sassy librarian (Susan Sarandon) who's about to be replaced with a boxy white library-bot. Who needs books in this brave new world of tablets and downloads?
Yet Frank is not at all happy when his two grown children (Liv Tyler, James Marsden) give him the gift of a shiny white VGC-60L healthcare robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to clean up after him and keep tabs on him. He certainly needs a maid. But he doesn't want a minder.
"It's time for your daily enema Frank," Robot calmly commands, much to Frank's chagrin.
"That thing is going to murder me in my sleep," Frank snaps at his daughter via videophone.
When you think about it, almost every robot in film turns out to be a malevolent robot. Think of The Terminator, 2001, Westworld or The Stepford Wives, to name just a few. So it's refreshing to see Robot (performed by Rachael Ma) as nothing but calm, helpful, soothing and a good companion for the forgetful old crook, despite those enemas.
Soon, Frank accepts his mechanical minder and the two form an unlikely bond. In that way, Robot & Frank addresses issues of ageing, memory and companionship, with Robot acting like an efficient pet that keeps Frank in check.
But just when you think Ford's script is in danger of becoming the most bizarre odd-couple bromance since Sam and Bumblebee in Transformers, Ford throws in a neat twist. Frank gets the idea to use Robot in a series of thefts. And that turns the film into much more than a buddy movie, raising issues of technology and becoming a cautionary tale of its dangers.
That said, those messages are delivered in such subtle ways you may miss it. The themes of ageing, dependence, technology and thievery are also lumped together in a jumbled way that leaves you wondering what kind of film this is - a bromance, a heist thriller, or an ode to ageing gracefully. If nothing else, it's highly original, even if those themes don't gel in the film's rambling narrative.
That said, Robot & Frank has such a gentle, easy-to-watch tone you go with, and Langella's layered, charming performance pulls you along. The stage and screen actor was Oscar nominated for playing Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but he's even better here as the wry, wily old thief. He keeps you guessing, steals your heart when you're not looking and makes Robot & Frank one of the year's quiet little delights.