First time Director Jake Schrieier hits a homerun with Robot & Frank, an off-beat comedy-drama-sci-fi that is a well told charming and sweet story, focusing on family dynamics, the eternal struggle between different generations and the inevitable (for humans at least) aging of a loved one.
Set in the near future (one not so distant that the world is an unrecognisable place to us but distant enough to have a robot servant that is completely independent) Robot & Frank tells the tale of Frank (Frank Langella) a lonely ex-jewel thief who is in his twilight years. Frank spends most of his time alone bar a weekly visit from his son Hunter (James Marsden) and the occasional run in with a librarian named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) that he has uncharacteristically befriended, as company.
At its core Robot & Frank is a film that means to emotionally move its audience, which (although it can feel forced at times) it achieves through the strong character driven performances of the main cast, that is largely due to the title characters Frank (and Robot, who is, as you may have guessed, a robot).
Suffering from dementia and forgetting the most basic of things, even forgetting where he is and who he is talking to, Frank is having a rough time in his old age as his mind isn’t what it used to be. After years of travelling to Frank’s remote home in the woods, Hunter decides to buy a robot to assist Frank. Primarily taking care of the day-to-day chores and also helping maintain a daily routine to improve his father’s mental health, Hunter no longer wants the responsibility of babysitting Frank, instead wanting to spend more time with his own children.
Although reluctant at first, Frank slowly warms to his new companion, especially when he learns that Robot has not been programmed to have a moral objection to stealing, and Frank soon makes him his partner in crime. Frank is able to convince Robot that the regimented preparation that he puts into planning his heists is just as good for his mental health as the exercises Robot plans for him, which mainly consist of long walks and gardening. Robot doesn’t seem to have any objections to Frank’s actions as he seems more focused on the bigger picture that is Frank’s mental health.
The film would fall flat if the relationship between Frank and the robot didn’t work as, essentially, the pair are a futuristic odd couple. Robot is an interesting character as he (I’ve decided to refer to Robot as ‘he’ as discussing whether Robot is in fact a ‘he’ rather than an ‘it’ would take a long time) seems far more capable of comprehending the complex situations that he is in, than you might expect. At no point during Frank’s hasty regression into the criminal mindset does Robot seem to have any understanding of what is happening.
The truly attention-grabbing moments between Frank and Robot time on screen are the moments where it seems Robot might have a greater comprehension of emotions than people think, even possibly self awareness, a twinkle in his eye that makes him more than just a bucket of nuts and bolts. Unfortunately, this aspect of Robot’s character is only touched upon and instead the film focuses on Frank’s inevitable mental deterioration.
The film doesn’t offer any solutions, nor does the director seem to have an opinion towards the treatment of Frank, instead there is a solemn objectiveness to the whole affair. We are simply accompanying Frank on the last leg of his journey, with no real solution, other than acceptance, which throughout the film is the one thing Frank struggles with.
Robot & Frank follows in the footsteps of other indie films (it still cost over two million dollars, it seems if it’s not a blockbuster it is now classed as an indie) like ‘Moon’ that have a grand backdrop but still focus on the characters and their plights, both films also take a slightly more positive view of our robot brethren, a sign for the future perhaps.