In 2011 who can forget the life-as-art performances of Olivia Spencer and Viola Davis in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a moving drama about African Americans maids’ attempt to find a semblance of justice as the work in white households in the Jim Crow South. And as The Help takes a look back at the plight of African American domestics during a tenuous and heated time in American history, Robot & Frank takes a forward approach to what domestic service could be in the near future.
Concerned that their father can no longer live by himself, Frank (Frank Langella) is paired with a humanoid robot (voice by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him with his daily needs. Frank, an aging cat burglar, initially bucks at the idea that a robot will set discipline in his household and life, but later realizes that the robot is a possible asset to his re-entry to a life of crime. Frank’s robot is programmed to not only clean his house and manage his daily existence, but to also give advice on diet, extracurricular activities and keep him happy. Frank discovers early on that his robot has no moral compass and since thievery brings great satisfaction to Frank, the robot is willing to assist Frank as long as there is no risk of bodily danger.
In this unusual buddy movie, director Jake Schreier takes an interesting look at what life could be in the very near future as computers replace human initiative and ingenuity, and also serve as companions for the sick and elderly. Schreier juxtaposes human relationships against humanoid computer relationships and ask us in our singular, self-absorbed society to examine the nuance and value of our relationships with the elderly and things of the past. He also examines what happens to senior family members as they seemingly loose value in our society and their children try to provide for their well-being, though they have their own complicated lives and live far away.
Frank Langella manages to inject a lot of humor into a film that could have been heavily weighted down with aging issues. And he has a lot of help from the excellent ensemble cast. Liv Tyler has Frank’s well-meaning humanitarian daughter (Madison) who gallops around the world documenting indigenous cultures is funny, quirky and domestically outpaced by the robot. Susan Saradon is effective as the town librarian and Frank’s love interest who must adapt to changing technology that could easily put her out of a job. And James Marsden as the exasperated son (Hunter) successfully combines sincere concern with his futile attempt to rectify his troubled relationship with his father.
Still, the true star of this film is the relationship between Langella and the robot. Langella makes aging funny, desperate and hopeful all at the same time. It aint over til it’s over for Frank, and Langella uses all the supposed negatives that come with old age to his advantage. Forgetfulness is an excuse to do what you want; low energy is an excuse for lounging around, and a bad disposition is an excuse for candor and honesty.
Though Robot & Frank is a funny, charming film, it does cause us to look at our own mortality and examine our relationship with those keepers of experience and wisdom.
Robot & Frank is released by Samuel Goldwyn Films is and currently playing select theaters.
—William S. Gooch