Robot & Frank
Frank is suffering from dementia. We discover this as we follow him through his daily routine. He says he’s going to Harry’s which is a restaurant that has been closed for a long time. It’s now a froufrou bath products store. He asks his son, Hunter, How’s Princeton?, a school he graduated from 15 years ago. He is often found wandering in the middle of the street. Concerned about his father’s deteriorating mental abilities, Hunter presents him with a robot. This is the near future and the robot is an advanced caregiver of sorts designed to clean, make meals, and ostensibly provide companionship for lonely people.
Robot & Frank is one of those films that will confound your expectations. I hadn’t seen the trailer beforehand and didn’t know what to expect. But the setup had me believing this would be a treacly tale on the regrettable effects of aging. How one plucky little robot improved the life of a cantankerous old coot. To be fair, I was partially right, It certainly starts out that way, but the drama is oh so much deeper than that.
The story is abetted by an appealing cast. Frank Langella plays Frank, a declining retiree in upstate New York. He’s given some wonderful performances in recent years, but this just might be his most engaging. He’s sweet, but never saccharine. He’s playing a sympathetic senior citizen, yes, but one with a surprising talent that makes him far from a saintly. Frank has a past. And let’s be “frank”, he is required to carry the picture. His interactions with everyone else form the bulk of the narrative. He enjoys visiting the local library where he hits on a mature but attractive librarian named Jennifer, played by Suisan Sarandon. She invites him to a fundraiser for her work. There he meets Jake played by newcomer Jeremy Strong, a smug hipster in charge of renovating the way the books are stored. He’s pretty much the very definition of a tool. Upon meeting the old guy, Jake remarks,” You’re so square, you’re practically avant-garde”. This is where the plot’s most interesting development takes off. I won’t spoil it, but it’s hilarious and totally unexpected.
Robot & Frank presents the life of a spirit reborn with a healthy dose of humor. The robot himself sort of reminds me of Woody Allen’s goofy butler disguise in the movie Sleeper. The cockamamie premise could’ve collapsed under a different direction – comparable to one of those high concept TV sitcoms from the 80s like Alf or Small Wonder. But the script manages to be funny, intelligent, and surprisingly original. It treats its main subject, not as an individual to be pitied, but as someone vibrant with a fully formed personality. Frank Langella imbues the character with a pragmatism that wholly unique. He simply finds excitement in doing things that he loves. The surprise here is that those pursuits are less than honorable.