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Review: ‘Robot & Frank’

Showcase For Langella

Frank (Frank Langella) and his Robot helper in

Credit: Stage 6 Films

Above: Frank (Frank Langella) and his Robot helper in "Robot and Frank."

In the future, robots might provide a kind of in home elder care when no family members are around. That's the premise for the endearing sci-fi tale "Robot & Frank" (opened August 24 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters).

"Robot & Frank" is a sci-fi tale only in the sense that it is set in the future and employs a technology that doesn't quite exist yet. So it's less about the science fiction and more about what makes us human... but wait. That is what the best sci-fi is often about. Films like "Transformers" just make us forget that fact.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Stage 6 Films

Frank Langella in "Robot & Frank."

Frank (the magnificent Frank Langella) is a retired man whose growing less capable of being on his own. He has two grown children, neither of whom is really able to stay with him. Madison (Liv Tyler) travels a lot chasing causes while her brother Hunter (James Marsden) is preoccupied with his own family. There's talk of sending Frank to a nursing home but then Hunter decides to send him a helper Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Frank hates the idea and rebels until he discovers that Robot can be turned into a cohort willing to engage in some shenanigans. It turns out that Frank is a former thief and having Robot around reinvigorates him as he plans some small scale local heists.

"Robot & Frank" is a small, low key film but one that's immensely likable because of Langella's anchoring performance. Langella delivers a well calibrated performance that finds both humor and sadness in his character. He gives us an aging man who does not want to "go gentle into that good night." But he's not the crotchety curmudgeon that we get in so many Hollywood comedies. (Remember "Grumpy Old Men"?) Robot develops a personality and charm despite his unchanging features and soothing tones. You get the sense of a real friendship developing between Robot and Frank, and you start to care for both far more than you might expect.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Stage 6 Films

Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon round out a fine cast in "Robot & Frank."

Director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford both make their feature film debuts with "Robot & Frank." They may not dazzle you with style but they impress with quiet craft. They have modest ambitions but realize them nicely. Frank is a well-drawn character and as circumstances conspire to make this a geriatric heist film, they provide a pleasing sense of detail about Frank's plans. The film also benefits from a wonderful ensemble that includes Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, and James Marsden. There's a graceful twist at the end that proves achingly sweet thanks to the fine work of the cast.

"Robot & Frank" (rated PG-13 for some language) does what so much of the best science fiction does, it asks us what makes us human. And in this case it does so with charm and considerable warmth. Plus it's always nice to see actors like Langella and Sarandon share the screen.

Companion viewing: "WALL-E," "Ghost in the Shell," "Blade Runner," "Bicentennial Man" (more for concept than execution), "Who Am I This Time?" (for a comparable performance by Sarandon)

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