Director: Jake Schreier
Rating PG-13. Running Time: 90 min
Stars: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard
Robot and Frank is the year's best buddy picture: a funny, sad and ultimately inspiring story of two pals who are from not just two different worlds, but two different classes of sentient being. The story of a man with Alzheimer's whose children present him with a caregiving robot to help around the house sounds like the setup for a cheesy cable flick. But Frank Langella, one of the screen's finest actors, infuses Robot and Frank with such authentic humanity we buy into the whole premise without reservation.
When we meet Frank, he is pretty hopeless, muddling through life in the home he once shared with his wife, his aimless, undisciplined existence aggravating the early symptoms of Alzheimer's.
The story is set in the near future, where diminutive walking, talking robots help people with simple daily routines. (Some nursing homes in the United States currently use lifelike fuzzy robot pets to calm dementia patients, so the future isn't as distant as the film might imply.) When Frank's grown son (James Marsden) unloads his dad's new robot from the trunk of his car, Frank's disdain is clear.
"It'll kill me in my sleep!" he barks, to no avail. The robot is there to stay.
Before long Frank becomes grudgingly tolerant of the robot, but as he observes the machine's skill sets, he sees a brilliant opportunity. Frank, you see, is a retired jewel thief, one of the world's best. He's served his time and long since retired, but that doesn't deter him from setting up a test for his new little friend: How good is he at picking locks?
Pretty darned good, it turns out. So Robot and Frank suddenly becomes a nifty little caper picture, with a bit of romance thrown in as Frank gets to make time with the lovely local librarian, played by Susan Sarandon. A monkey wrench gets thrown into the works when Frank's globe-trotting political activist daughter (Liv Tyler) drops in and insists that the robot be turned off. In the near future, it appears, the enslavement of robots as helpmates will raise cultural controversy in some circles.
Through it all, Frank's underlying disability is never far from the surface, a fact that gives the proceedings unexpected levels of taut suspense and lingering melancholy. Christopher D. Ford's script deftly explores all the film's relationships with knowing good humor, and the action moves along swiftly enough so we never stop to say, "Hey, wait a minute …"
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