Directed by: Jake Schreier
Premise: Set in the near future, a former jewel thief (Frank Langella) is given a robot butler that is programmed to take care of him. When he discovers that the robot is capable of cracking safes, the thief resumes his trade.
What Works: The science fiction genre has been largely overtaken by epic Hollywood productions whose emphasis is less on character or story and more about spectacle. There is nothing wrong with extravagant fireworks displays, but they do tend to get numbing after a while, especially when the motion picture market is so saturated with them. While a lot of these epic productions are taking up spaces at local multiplexes, there has been an insurgency of small scale science fiction films, mostly from independent filmmakers and released under the radar. Movies like Chronicle, The Bay, and Safety Not Guaranteed have been effective counter programming to the oversize sci-fi and fantasy projects released recently and of this crop of films Robot & Frank is among the better titles. One of the most outstanding qualities of Robot & Frank is that it does not look or feel like a science fiction film and yet it is. Science fiction is about the intersection of humanity and technology and that is dramatized very effectively yet subtly in this film. Frank Langella plays an aging ex-con who lives alone in an isolated rural home. His son, a young professional played by James Marsden, buys him a robot that acts as a companion, butler, and therapist. Langella’s character initially rejects the robot but as its presence makes his life easier and creates opportunities for stimulation, the robot becomes indispensable. The way the character’s life and perspective are changed by technology is a smart, if somewhat cynical, dramatization of the way people become dependent upon technological conveniences. Robot & Frank also deals with themes of utility and purpose and the filmmakers enmesh those themes into the film very skillfully. Langella’s character has languished in retirement from thieving; it was his skill and trade, and without that his life lacks a purpose. The presence of the robot creates an opportunity for the elderly burglar to regain a sense of purpose and pride. On the other hand, the robot becomes an enabler, allowing Frank down a path that could send him back to prison. Despite all this thoughtful thematic material, Robot & Frank is a relatively lightweight film but in a positive way. The movie is charming in a similar fashion as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Where the Wild Things Are. Frank Langella is terrific and the actor is able to provide a truly multifaceted performance, including moments of crotchety humor as well as human vulnerability. His character has a burgeoning romance with a librarian played by Susan Sarandon and their scenes are very sweet.
What Doesn’t: The one aspect of Robot & Frank that isn’t quite up to the standard of the rest of the movie is a subplot introduced late in the story in which Frank Langella’s character copes with memory loss. This subplot goes awry as the story makes a silly reveal near its climax that undercuts the more straightforward aspects of the plot. It fits with the tone of the movie and it by no means ruins the story but the reveal comes across as unnecessarily complex especially when the movie was working fine without the twist.
DVD extras: Commentary track and image gallery.
Bottom Line: Robot & Frank is a refreshingly smart and funny science fiction movie. For fans of true science fiction this movie is a must-see and for everyone else it is a very pleasant film that is thought provoking while also frequently funny and touching.
Episode: #445 (June 30, 2013)