When we first meet the silver-haired Frank (Frank Langella), he’s going about robbing a home in the middle of the night before he realizes that it’s his own. Nimble though the former jewel thief still is, his senility is catching up to him, and his son Hunter (James Marsden) can’t always make the drive upstate to mind his father. Hunter’s solution: to drop off a caretaker robot (Peter Sarsgaard did the voice; Rachael Ma, the movements) to make sure that Frank eats well and generally stays out of trouble.
Frank’s globe-trotting daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), would object on moral grounds -- she’s off fighting the good fight for humans to keep their jobs elsewhere -- but Frank’s own displeasure comes from a simpler place. He doesn’t want or need change in his unsteady life, or a walking, talking, daily reminder of his failing mind tailing him around. Of course, this is all before Frank realizes that, if instructed, his robot can be pretty handy at picking locks...
“Robot & Frank” is as slightly oddball as its title might suggest, but first-time director Jake Schreier rarely overplays his hand, coloring in his vision of the near future with credible flourishes of technology set against an ageless backdrop of thriving nature. Frank’s lone constant is a crush on a local librarian (Susan Sarandon), a fellow relic all but replaced by a bulkier robot herself and whose sparsely-patronized library is about to be digitized at the whims of yuppies like Jake (Jeremy Strong) who have money to burn and little regard for the past.
It’s this unwanted transition that sees Frank getting back into the game. At first, he steals a prized copy of “Don Quixote” (fitting) for his love, before scheming to rob certain yuppies blind. So far as the robot’s concerned, it’s caring for Frank -- he’s eating better, feeling better, re-establishing a critical sense of routine. An old pro playing an old pro, essentially acting opposite a piece of plastic, Langella critically anchors a story that would skirt sadness in any era. There’s a hint of a gruff New York City attitude to his more clipped exchanges, and between the heist highs and lost lows, it seems that Langella has aged into the kind of roles that Walter Matthau made sing in his later years.
Sarandon, Marsden and Tyler all provide sturdy supporting work, while the combined efforts of Sarsgaard and Ma should not be discounted, as they bring convincing life to an inanimate sidekick. An often unwitting Sancho Panza to Frank’s Quixote, its hyper-reliable memory doubles as both impeccable reconnaissance tool and potential storage for evidence, its gardening habits bring a much-needed sense of renewed growth into its ward’s home and its concerned programming lacks any easily anticipated edge or menace; Robot isn’t the one going haywire here.
This is Langella’s show, and although the story seems slight and straightforward, Christopher D. Ford’s screenplay finds more complicated shades of emotion for the veteran actor to explore by the end. It’s through his heartache that the heartfelt moments of this modestly charming buddy comedy resonate at all, and he’s reason enough to recommend it.