Film Review – Robot & Frank
It is not often that I’m really pleasantly surprised by a movie. Between receiving too much information from trailers and the fact that most films seem to be retelling the same story, it makes finding something different that much more exciting. Somehow the film Robot & Frank completely missed my radar when it played at SIFF this year, but now it has quickly risen to be one of my favorite films of the year.
The story follows a former jewel thief named Frank (Frank Langella), who is gradually losing his memory. Unable to give him the consistent supervision he needs, his son Hunter (James Marsden) decides to get a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to look after him. It isn’t long before Frank figures out that his robot might just be the help he needs to return to being a master thief.
In terms of storylines I’ve seen this year, a human/robot heist team has to be one of the most unconventional. It is so off the wall that it truly captured my curiosity. Much as in the case of this year’s Safety Not Guaranteed, director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford are fairly new voices on the scene, so I didn’t have any expectations for them going in. Also like Safety Not Guaranteed, this film provides a new spin in the sci-fi genre on an old topic, tackling the concept of robots—something that dates back to the earliest days of film, with movies such as Metropolis.
The core element that makes this movie engaging is the relationship between Frank and his robot. The robot has a level of humanity that generally isn’t represented on film. More often than not, robots are portrayed as a basic mechanism for simplifying human life or as an out of control entity which we must stop. Perhaps the closest parallel I can draw to this movie’s robot is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There is an element of concern and sacrifice that makes his robot more than just guardian: he is a friend. Peter Sarsgaard’s voice and intonation here provide a very soothing base throughout the adventures, sort of like H.The.D. from 2001: A Space Odyssey (but without the danger).
Besides that point, this is not a film to be confused with Terminator 2 in any other ways…it is not action driven; there isn’t any violence; the robots don’t look human; the world is not in danger. For the most part, it feels like any other indie film—it just happens to have robots in it. The story is more or less set in the present day in a small town in New York. With the exception of some decent video conferencing software and slick-looking cell phones, technology is not quite as pervasive as you would imagine in a time with robots this advanced. The film is more of a heist movie than a sci-fi movie, and the robot is more of a means to an end. By their very nature, heist movies are meant to be thrillers, but here that takes a backseat to the relationship between Frank and his robot.
Frank Langella deserves a lot of credit for his work, but I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise to see him in a film like this, since has been taking chances throughout his career. He has had some hits (Frost/Nixon), some misses (The Box), and some curious choices (Masters of the Universe), but he has always been working to the beat of his own drum. He has certainly given himself opportunities to become a more mainstream star, but has chosen to stick with more unusual and challenging projects.
Beyond the leads, the film is almost too star-loaded; for a small indie film it feels a bit too heavy on named actors (including Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, and Jeremy Sisto). All of these actors performe their roles solidly and are entertaining, but I don’t know if any of them bring anything that was irreplaceable—other than their names.
There are a lot of intriguing plot lines in the movie that are used to move the story along and very easily could have deserved more attention, such as people losing their jobs to humans. Similarly, the film raises the issues of everything becoming digital (most notably, books) and what it means to our society to lose them—this is obviously something not just of concern in the distant future, but that is becoming an issue now. These details helped to create this universe, but I wish they could’ve been explored a bit more.
Originality is something that should be championed in the world of film. Sadly, more often than not, we are left with remakes, prequels, and sequels. When films like Robot & Frank come out, it is our duty as filmgoers to let Hollywood know what we want, by supporting indies like this.
Besides, I want a robot like the one in the movie—how can we make that happen? Is there a Kickstarter or something I can throw my money into?
Final Grade: A