When writers play tricks with their audience, they have to be careful for two major reasons. First, they need to execute those tricks deftly, but more importantly, the stories they create can’t exist solely to pull a fast one on us. Robot & Frank begins with a low-key and endearing concept—an aging cat burglar is given a robot butler to help him in his daily routine—but has a third act that feels engineered simply so the writer can shout “Gotcha!” at the viewer.
Frank Langella stars as Frank, who lives in a country house in Cold Spring, NY, in the near future. Technology has progressed to the point where video calls are common and libraries are becoming obsolete, at least as we know them in their current form. Frank lives by himself and is rapidly becoming senile, to the point where his uptight son, Hunter (James Marsden), decides to get his father a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to give the old man a regimented schedule he can stick to, thus maintaining his memory. At first, Frank is obstinate about getting mechanized aid, but as he sees his local library, run by the fetching Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), get replaced with pricey technology from a smug benefactor, he decides to mount a heist with the robot’s help.
Langella toes the line between melodrama and honesty as Frank, never acting so outrageously senile or intensely shrewd that he’s ever unbelievable. He’s always been the kind of actor who, with a simple look, can tear down another performer’s artifice, so his no-frills style works well in the setting director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford construct. The future is here in Robot & Frank, but the world-building never detracts from Frank’s character arc. That Langella has any discernible chemistry with the robot is mostly testament to his innate talent. Sarsgaard is fine in the film—the vocal rapport the two men have is reminiscent of the connection between Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey in Moon—but Langella’s the standout.
The further that Ford gets into telling the story, though, the more frustrating Robot & Frank becomes. Marsden is a welcome presence, even if Hunter fits into the “frustrated child of forgetful elder parent” stereotype. Liv Tyler, as Frank’s daughter, Madison, does her best with a thankless role; Madison is an anti-robot advocate, believing such technology is equivalent to slave labor. Though Tyler’s character may have a legitimate point of view, she only serves as an obvious hippie-ish obstacle, existing to separate the two title characters. The most questionable character is Jake, the yuppie who Frank intends to steal from. Jake is smart enough to see through Frank’s “Oh, I’m a frail old man who can’t remember anything” act, but the way he attempts to pierce that veil is kind of outrageous. He basically does more detective work than the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto), making key parts of the second half of the film a bit implausible.
The entire third act doesn’t hinge on a twist, but the idea of how reliable a narrator Frank is as the lead character is at the crux of a frustrating surprise. The issue isn’t that Ford doesn’t play fair in revealing the surprise—which this review won’t spoil—as well as its details. But before the wool is lifted from our eyes, the characters act in a fairly oblique fashion simply because otherwise, the surprise would be revealed early on. If the other characters acknowledged this surprise earlier, it would make perfect sense. To ignore it as they do feels like an unnecessary deception. Some writers have brought forth excellent twists that demand a reevaluation of the stories that led up to them. Robot & Frank isn’t so confident or assured.
Frank Langella is a sturdy, rock-solid presence in this film, as you might expect. And Christopher Ford and Jake Schreier present an inviting vision of the future, making us want to know more about the low-key but technologically advanced culture. The relationship between Robot & Frank builds naturally, even if we know that Frank will eventually warm to his robotic servant. The movie is most galling because it feels the need to gild the lily, as if the basic story of a cat burglar using a robot to help steal a prized possession isn’t enough. The audience deserves better than the rug-pulling moment in the last 10 minutes of this otherwise compelling, well-acted story.
— Josh Spiegel