Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite near future.
Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the books are shipped out…
Robot and Frank is a deeply odd movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.
Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot, but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be. Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a cipher.
Robot and Frank is amusing, but it feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure it financing.