Even with stars like Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon, it's hard to read the premise of "Robot & Frank" without being skeptical. Half of the film's plot sounds like a modest indie heist film ... but with a robot. The other half seems like "Gran Torino"... but with the young Hmong teenager replaced with a robot.
It's clearly the robot that makes these plotlines sound ridiculous and hokey. They're not as nerd-kitschy as pirates, zombies and ninjas, but robots are just barely more respectable. Luckily, thanks to some charming performances and a surprisingly clever script, "Robot & Frank" ends up being much more than just a gimmick.
Langella stars Frank, a retired cat burglar living in quiet solitude in the near future (robots and video phones are a common part of society). His grown-up kids (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) are getting worried about Frank's mental health, which has been slowly deteriorating. He walks to a local soap shop expecting it to be an old restaurant from his past, and he often asks his son how things are going at Princeton despite the fact that he graduated years ago.
To help Frank, his son buys him a helper robot (voiced in a HAL 9000-esque drone by "Shattered Glass" star Peter Sarsgaard). The robot's goal is to help organize Frank's life, get him into a rhythm and live healthier. The two have a contemptuous relationship until Frank discovers the robot's capabilities for picking locks and breaking the law. They start with stealing a rare book for Frank's librarian crush (Sarandon) but then escalate to a far more daring heist of a rich techno-hipster's house that brings the attention of the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto).
As strange as this is to say, there's a friendly human chemistry between Langella and the robot. In the beginning, the two have a funny back-and-forth antagonistic relationship. The robot wants Frank to eat better; Frank wants the robot, or "death machine" as he calls it, to disappear forever. Even as the two become better friends, however, the dialogue keeps giving the title characters clever and interesting banter.
It could have been a typical cranky old man routine, but the script – the feature debut from Christopher D. Ford – keeps the material fresh and the characters genuine. It also helps to have Langella, who brings lightness as well as emotional weight to the role. He's comfortable with the comedic conversations but really shines as the film puts the focus on his fading, inconsistent memory. Frank's monologue in the middle of the movie in which he talks about working with the robot and slowly moves toward talking about his son is a beautifully touching piece of writing and acting.
In fact, as "Robot & Frank" goes along, the central relationship is not only humorous but very moving. The two have interesting conversations throughout the film about the mind and the meaning of existence. However, as the sheriff tightens his investigation, the discussions become more intense as both Frank and the robot have to come to terms with the delicate state of their memories.
There's a twist near the end that I'm not quite sure works, but for the most part, Ford's script and director Jake Schreier handle the emotional material just as well as they handle their constantly laugh-inducing comedy. A few of the minor characters also feel a little out of place. Sisto's sheriff weirdly flip-flops between being Frank's admirer and Frank's prosecutor, and the dweeby young snob they're robbing is just a bit too snooty to be believed.
These characters only stick out, however, because everything else feels so natural. Even the hollow, clanging score strangely fits with the nearby future setting. The romance is sweet, the friendship is charmingly funny and the story is full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is how improbably enjoyable "Robot & Frank" is.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Oct. 21, 2016
If one really wants to venture into the depths of cinema's shadowy creeps and nightmarish creations this Halloween, your best bet wouldn't be a movie theater this year. It's be the Milwaukee Art Museum's new exhibit, "Haunted Screens," opening today.
Published Oct. 20, 2016
Some months, it feels like there's nothing for anybody being added to Netflix. November will not be one of those months, with "The Jungle Book," "The Crown," "Gilmore Girls" and "Boyhood" headed your way. Here's what to expect - and what to watch while you can.
Published Oct. 19, 2016
You probably didn't need much of a teaser trailer to start getting excited about "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2." But here's one anyways, released today by returning director James Gunn, and it certainly doesn't hurt!
Published Oct. 17, 2016
Fans of Milwaukee Film certainly know Kristopher Pollard, the organization's affable membership manager. But this weekend, they'll be able to get to know Kpolly, the artist, thanks to his upcoming "Slap Fights" gallery, opening Friday night at Hot Pop.
Published Oct. 14, 2016
I hit 23 movies at the Milwaukee Film Festival this year. I know: WEAK. But luckily for me, and all the other film festival junkies out there looking back regretfully at the screenings we missed, many of the selections are still out there. Here's where to find them.
Published Oct. 11, 2016
For a seemingly quiet, low-key suburb, Hales Corners is full of surprises. Case in point: Tanpopo, a restaurant bringing brimming bowls of authentic ramen to the world of Milwaukee suburbia - and cooking up a pleasantly sized following as a result.
Published Oct. 11, 2016
As anybody who attended even just one of the 283 films scattered about the city over the previous two weeks can attest, the Milwaukee Film Festival had another great year in 2016. And now, the numbers are in to statistically prove it.
Published Oct. 10, 2016
Steve-O is bringing his one-man show of physical anarchy and personal anecdotes to Turner Hall. But before he hits the stage - possibly literally - we chatted with the "Jackass" star about meshing stunts with stand-up and the insane exploit that even he passed on.
Published Oct. 7, 2016
For over a century, The Bosch has stood guard on the corner as a place of refuge and relaxation for those coming, going and staying in Hales Corners. And now that its corner is moving, so is the historic tavern, thanks to a "Tug the Tavern" event on Saturday afternoon.
Published Oct. 7, 2016
With true crime stories all the rage in Hollywood, it's actually surprising that it has taken this long to get around to a new movie about the case of Milwaukee's own Jeffrey Dahmer. But we're finally here - and with a surprising face in the lead.