The kind of comedy that could well inspire love, “Robot & Frank” is a marginally futuristic, emotionally genuine yarn that combines facetious technology and two armor-coated characters: a crusty, fading ex-cat burglar and his phlegmatic appliance. Debuting helmer Jake Schreier, screenwriter Christopher D. Ford and a wry and wily Frank Langella all shine in a smart, plausible and resonant film that should have no problem finding its way from Sundance to significant distribution.
Set in bucolic Cold Spring, N.Y., “in the near future,” the story begins with 70-year-old Frank (Langella) breaking and entering, apparently for old time’s sake. An accomplished “second-story man,” as he calls himself, Frank is more or less retired from his felonious vocation, having served two considerable stretches in prison (although one, he acknowledges with disgust, was for tax evasion).
His relationship with his two kids — Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) — isn’t awful, considering what an absentee father he was. But Madison travels and Hunter lives far enough away that Frank’s increasing need for care presents a problem. So Hunter buys Frank a robot butler; this is the near future, after all. And then the fun begins.
Other screenwriters might have belabored the obvious devices that attend such a conceit. Frank doesn’t want or need the robot; he wants the robot out of the house; cue crankiness, confrontation and lots of clanging and clattering. Ford uses all this, but also takes the storyline in several unexpected directions, among them the library, where Frank has an obvious sweet spot for the local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Like Frank, Jennifer is something of a relic (albeit a good-looking one), especially since the library is being revamped and modernized by a local mogul, Jake (Jeremy Strong), who addresses Frank as “old timer” and thus earns his undying wrath.
Things may be changing, but Frank doesn’t like change, any more than he likes a robot who throws out his Cap’n Crunch and makes him engage in “moderate exercise.” So Frank trains his robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to pick locks. The first target of Cold Spring’s newest heist team is Jake’s house, an operation that requires some negotiation, as Robot is programmed to weigh the odds of success before he’ll allow Frank to commit a burglary.
Robot and Frank achieve an odd chemistry. Robot is chipper while Frank is sullen, and Langella does a fine job of portraying a dementia victim’s anger at his own malfunctioning mind. Frank can be a bit mischievous — he shoplifts, mainly to drive a local shopkeeper crazy — but he’s also lonely and deprived of stimulation, which is why dementia has the advantage. One of the film’s more touching and nicely underplayed angles is the improvement Frank makes as he becomes re-engaged with life, even if he does so via crime.
There’s a tenderness to the film that complements its often barbed dialogue, which Langella delivers with irony, exasperation and sometimes both. Aside from several pleasing plot twists, a gracefully constructed metaphor about memory adds a bittersweet angle to a story that’s half sci-fi and half shaggy dog.
Tech credits are tops, and d.p. Matthew J. Lloyd finds just the right palette to reflect Scheier’s well-wrought mix of pathos and humor.