Robot And Frank (2013) Review

“Robot And Frank” is an utterly charming, bittersweet film about themes. Anchored by a masterfully gentle performance by Frank Langella, “Robot And Frank” explores the cruelty of dementia while also exploring the impact technology has and is having on the basic fabric of society: our connections to and with other people, and our societal obsession with anything new at the expense of the familiar and the old.

Langella plays Frank, a long-divorced ex-jewel thief who lives alone. Concerned for his father’s care but increasingly unwilling to make the ten-hour round trip to visit him weekly, Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a robot “butler” to look after him. Initially dismissive, Frank’s gradually developed friendship with his new companion is the beating heart of this film.

“Robot And Frank” is a lovely character study, and is happy to meditate on its themes in an unshowy and restrained way. The main supporting cast of Marsden, Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon deal with Frank’s increasing lapses and forgetfulness with a heart-breaking candour, putting on the expected brave face while glimpses of frustration and loss hint at the pain inside. The robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard but played with a superb physical performance by Rachael Ma) is a wry, deadpan presence who nevertheless manages to win over both Frank and us, the audience.

Paralleling Frank’s declining memory is the decommissioning of the local library, where Sarandon’s gentle and graceful librarian is forced to deal with a brash young hipster consultant. Derisive and patronising about the archaic nature of “the printed word”, he intends to send the books to be scanned, pulped and recycled and turn the library into a community focussed experiential space. Instead, he inadvertently turns Frank back to his former profession of cat burglary.

Despite its whimsical tone, this may be a difficult film to watch for anyone who has lost a loved one to dementia or a similarly pernicious condition as Langella plays it with an honesty that can make it painful to watch as gradually Frank falls further away from the person his family knew.

If the film has a fault, it’s that it’s almost too keen on exploring its themes at the expense of the actual story, including the greasily smug hipster developer getting his comeuppance. There are a few too many non-sequiturs or plot threads left hanging without resolution or payoff. Then again, perhaps that’s a deliberate choice by first-time feature director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D Ford to echo Frank’s gradual but inexorable decline and allowing us to superficially share in the distress it can cause. It’s an interesting choice but ultimately leads to a slightly dissatisfying viewing experience.

A touching, heartfelt meditation on ageing set in a well realised and convincing “near future”, perhaps the thing that stayed with me longest after the closing credits was that by the time we reached that future, I’ll probably be around Frank’s age. Better start saving for that robot now…