The billing of the new movie "Robot & Frank" is all wrong. It should have been called "Frank & Robot," as it's really a one-human show.
The Frank in the title is the veteran actor Frank Langella. He's won piles of prizes for his stage work and he garnered an Oscar nomination for his turn as Richard M. Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." In this movie, Langella plays another kind of crook — an irascible, retired cat burglar who lives up in a quaint house in the countryside at some time in the "near future."
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Compliance']
The robot in this flick looks like a sentient Lego man in a flight helmet and speaks with a HAL-like deadpan, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. Frank's harried son Hunter (James Madsen) foists the thing on him to serve as a caretaker. Frank, as we learn, is suffering from memory lapses, disorientation, and other symptoms of dementia, but is too proud to admit this to himself. He takes one look at the robot — Frank never really bothers to give him (it?) a name — and declares, "That thing is going to murder me in my sleep."
He doesn't, of course. This isn't one of those kind of sci-fi flicks. Most cinematic robots from HAL to the Terminator to David from this summer's "Prometheus" have been either villains bent on destroying humanity or at least amoral agents of a corporate agenda who have no qualms about killing those they deem as inconvenient. Others, as in Steven Spielberg's wildly underrated movie "A.I.," delve into the pathos of a sentient being constructed, and disposed of, at the whims of the capitalist marketplace. The robot in this movie is, one surmises, a more accurate depiction of robots from the near future. It is essentially a device; an ambulatory iPhone with a souped-up Siri for a brain, designed above all else to tend to Frank's physical and mental well being. He's also a great foil for Langella's Frank.
The robot cleans up Frank's filthy abode, gets him to eat a healthful diet of brown rice and vegetables, and tries to get him involved in a hobby. The robot's preferred pastime is gardening; an activity that Frank has little but contempt for. Part of the fun of this film is watching Langella react to his synthetic sidekick with a remarkably nuanced mixture of irritation, annoyance, and ultimately affection. Think of it as '50 Shades of Grump.'
Frank's passion lies less with greenery and more with thievery. When he learns that the robot has little in the way ethical or legal restraints, he teaches him how to pick a lock. Soon, Frank and the robot break into the local library that's in the process of being repurposed into a museum dedicated to pre-digital technology and overseen by an unctuous yuppie. They swipe a rare copy of "Don Quixote" with the hopes of impressing the attractive librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).
Though the movie certainly has elements that resemble the Cervantes saga — a mismatched duo engaging in some pretty outlandish escapades — this isn't ultimately a buddy movie. Instead, it's a tale of one man's acceptance of his own limitations and morality. (Warning: potential spoiler ahead.) The true emotional moment of the movie lies not when he says goodbye to his robot but when he learns his real relationship is with Jennifer. And Langella handles that moment flawlessly. "Robot & Frank" is, in the end, a lightweight charmer that provides a great showcase for Langella's formidable acting chops.
"Robot & Frank" expands to select cities this Friday.
See a clip from "Robot & Frank":