In the near-future, retired cat burglar Frank (Langella) is living alone and prone to forgetting things, so his son (Marsden) buys a domestic robot (Sarsgaard, voice) which is programmed to look after him. Though Frank is initially resistant, he soon realises that the robot can be uses to restart his career as a jewel thief…
Robots have long been used to create memorable partnerships with human characters in cinema. See, for example, The Terminator in T2: Judgement Day, the eponymous iron giant in The Iron Giant, or Paulie’s birthday ‘bot in Rocky IV. Okay, that last one not so much, but the dynamic between man and machine is often employed to rich storytelling effect – and thankfully this is the case here. Part enjoyable buddy movie, part tense crime caper, part gentle dementia drama, Robot & Frank uses its quirky premise to say something about mankind’s relation to technology, the death of the print industry and the sadness of growing old. All in one charming swoop.
Moving but not manipulative, it’s a bittersweet indie sci-fi which is lite on sci-fi. Aside from a Skype-like plasma-phone here and an assistant robot there, the near-future reality we’re presented with isn’t much different from our own. Sure, there are artificially-intelligent servant robots (which surely aren’t too far away from being a reality?), but they’re easy to accept as part of the story. Less than ninety minutes long, you occasionally wish that certain passages were given more time to marinade. But while this leaves things a little on the slight side, Jake Schreier’s feature debut still manages to prove affecting.
In large part, this is thanks to the titular pairing. As well as providing the sort of gruff gravitas we expect from him, Frank Langella skillfully portrays a man reawakening after rediscovering the thing he does best, while Peter Sarsgaard’s Kevin-Spacey-from-Moon-like robot voiceover is perfectly-pitched. Elsewhere, there’s a late twist which is cleverly executed, while Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler chip in with accomplished support.
While a tad on the slight side, Robot & Frank is a charming, moving and enjoyable indie sci-fi. And the robot is miles better than the one from Rocky IV.