Apologies to readers for the slightly delayed post today. I returned late Sunday evening from a weekend trip, so I’m playing catch-up a bit this morning.
Robots: do we fear their ultimate takeover of humanity, or are they amusing, neurotic pals, like C-3PO? I remember receiving a LEGO R2-D2 with a programmable drivetrain early in high school, and in my doughy innocence, I imagined myself walking around with a three-foot droid serving drinks and quipping in 8-bit beeps and blips. Instead, it was a twelve-inch-high kit that could turn in circles and emit a few beeps on a pre-programmed path (there was a way to program him to do more, but I lacked the intelligence and/or technological capability to do so).
That’s all to say that I find the idea of robot buddies fascinating. One of my spoiled complaints about the modern world is that, while technology has certainly grown more useful—WiFi, for example, and thermostats that can be set remotely—it hasn’t gotten much cooler. The optimistic sci-fi worlds of the 1950s and early 1960s, with helpful droids and interplanetary exploration, have been replaced with the dystopian sci-fi worlds of the 1970s. The modern world feels less like Star Trek or Star Wars and more like Logan’s Run.
Needless to say, I was immediately drawn to the premise of Robot & Frank, a 2012 film that takes place in “the near future,” when friendly robot helpers are expensive but available, and smartphones have just become brighter and more transparent. It’s a comedy-drama, but heavier on the comedy side, albeit understated.
Indeed, Robot & Frank isn’t really about robots, per se, but rather explores the problems of aging: reduced mental acuity, decreased independence, and increased isolation. The second titular character, Frank (played wonderfully by Frank Langella) is an aging cat burglar, struggling with what appears to be senility, dementia, or early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Frank’s short-term memory is shoddy, and he keeps attempting to visit a restaurant, Harry’s, that has been closed for years. His longsuffering but impatient son (James Marsden) drives ten hours every weekend to check on Frank, while Frank’s humanitarian, globetrotting, anti-robot daughter (Liv Tyler) occasionally checks in from Turkmenistan, where she’s involved in some manner of international aid work.
Frank wanders around town, often walking in the middle of the street, and enjoys visiting the local librarian (Susan Sarandon), with whom Frank shares a flirtatious friendship. The library is being transformed into a community center because no one reads books anymore. Frank has a run-in with Jake, a local gadfly who vacuously follows the latest trendy tech fads, and who appears to live off of his wife’s lucrative gig as an attorney.
To ease his care-taking burdens, Frank’s son purchases an expensive robot, specifically designed to get Frank into a routine and eating a healthy diet in order to improve Frank’s mental faculties. Frank initially distrusts the robot, thinking it’s feeding information to Frank’s son about Frank’s habits, but soon realizes the robot lacks an ethical program, so will go along with any activity it believes is useful to Frank’s therapy.
Soon after this epiphany, it’s at the swanky dedication for the new community center Frank sees Jake’s wife wearing an outrageously expensive piece of jewelry. This inspires Frank to hatch a heist, using his new robot pal as his sidekick. Frank trains the robot to pick locks, and the two stake out Jake’s lavish digs.
Much of the humor from the film comes in the interactions between Frank and the robot, especially as the robot attempts to get Frank back on a good, healthy path. Frank’s daughter, Madison, is avidly anti-robot, fearing that robot helpers will replace human workers, but even she comes around when she realizes how helpful and agreeable the robot is, and how much the robot means to hear father.
The most “robot-focused” the film gets is when Frank faces a dilemma: to avoid capture for his theft, he must erase the robot’s memory, lest the robot’s memory be subpoenaed and used as evidence. The robot insists that he has no feelings and encourages Frank to take the step, but Frank has grown close to the robot, and realizes that wiping the machine’s memory will eliminate the robot’s identity as Frank’s pal.
Otherwise, the bulk of the film deals with Frank’s aging, as well as dipping into his glorious past as a successful and debonair cat burglar, one who only went after high-value targets and never resorted to violence. In an age of high-tech sterility and disrespect for the past, Frank reminisces about his salad days fondly.
Other than a daring escape from his home with the robot, this film is fairly low-key and understated. That said, it’s a wonderful little slice-of-life character study, and one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. I highly recommend you check out Robot & Frank (currently on Hulu).