Robot & Frank (***)

Though you can pretty much tell exactly where the film is going from early on in the proceedings, ‘Robot & Frank’ still manages to come off as a relatively clever and very enjoyable sci-fi dramedy. The biggest asset that this flick has going for it is the lead performance of Frank Langella, along with his interactions with the rest of the cast (including the robot from the title…you really have to see it to fully appreciate how well this works). First time director Jake Schreier has taken Christopher D. Ford’s high concept but sometimes slight script and given it a real soul. It’s the little details that set this one apart, from how the actors play their roles to the elements of the future shown, all the way to how the robot looks. I didn’t fall completely in love with the movie like some people have, but I was consistently interested and smiled a lot. Langella especially is quite good, though I wouldn’t hold my breath for any real awards attention. This could be a solid indie success as the summer ends, and I hope this Early Review gets a few of you to check this unlikely buddy film out when it hits theaters on Friday. It’s well worth it and I hope you take my advice. You won’t regret it.

The film takes place in the somewhat near future. Almost everything is the same (I will say that cell phones look pretty cool here), except for the accepted presence of robots in our society. They’re not everywhere and threatening humans in any violent way, but they’ve sort of become part of the working class in a way. Butler/maid/nurse/clerk work has become their forte, something that Frank (Langella) learns firsthand when his son Hunter (James Marsden) brings his dad a robot (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) to help out around the house, despite the objections of Frank’s daughter/Hunter’s activist sister Madison (Liv Tyler). Frank is descending into dementia, but he’s fighting it valiantly, which doesn’t lend himself to taking the arrival of the robot kindly. He’s content to just flirt with the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), but when he figures out that the robot will assist him in more ways than initially thought, he gets a new idea. You see, Frank is a former cat burglar and he’s found the perfect new partner. Thus begins an unlikely friendship between man and machine as they pull off increasingly high profile smash and grab jobs until their antics get the attention of the authorities. You’ll see the ending coming a mile away, but you’ll be into the film enough that you probably won’t care.

I really liked Frank Langella’s performance here, though everyone is quite good. Langella is perfectly cast in the lead role, and he relishes playing this character. He’s a cranky old man slowly succumbing to the disease eating away at his brain, but he never overdoes it. Especially once he’s developed a bond with the robot, Langella gets a lot of emotion out of the scenes and threatens to break your heart with the lengths he goes to keep his friend. As for the robot, I was shocked to find out that Peter Sarsgaard did the voice, as you’d never guess just by listening. It’s terrific voice work, perhaps even the best of the year (even better than ‘Brave’ for me). As Frank’s children, both James Marsden and Liv Tyler make the most of limited screen time. They each want what’s best for their dad, but they’ve grown up very differently and tackle his past in unique ways. Marsden blames his father for the sins of the past, while Tyler is more willing to just take him as is. Susan Sarandon is somewhat wasted, but she does fine work when she does get to show up on the screen and makes the role her own whenever possible. Also in the film are Jeremy Sisto, Ana Gasteyer, and Jeremy Strong in small roles, but I really can’t say enough about Frank Langella. He’s easily the best part of the movie.

Neither director Jake Schreier nor writer Christopher D. Ford are household names, but I expect them both to become bigger in the industry after this film. Schreier roots the flick in reality, which actually helps with the near future element and makes the science of the science fiction pretty believable. He elevates Ford’s clever but not extraordinary script (I wish it had a little more meat on its bones) and gives the actors a lot to work with. Especially in how the robot interacts with Frank, the writer and director have a great idea of how to both humanize and keep the robot distinctly a machine. It’s hard to explain, but it just plain works. Schreier and Ford make a great team…hopefully another collaboration is forthcoming from them.

Overall, ‘Robot & Frank’ is more than charming enough to make you overlook whatever flaws the film might have (it occasionally tries to have its cake and eat it too emotionally, for example) and embrace it for what it simply is. This is a movie about friendship, loneliness, and the fight against the setting of the sun, as it were. For Frank Langella’s performance alone, this is worth seeing, but the complete package makes it really easy to recommend. When the film opens this weekend, I hope you all go see it…this is certainly a worthwhile piece of cinema.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!