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 July 30, 2014
"Hercules" not only bounds over the previously set bar but easily stands on its own right as surprisingly solid B-movie entertainment, a sort of sword-and-sandals variation of the John Wayne classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" that cleverly hints at subverting and deconstructing its titular legend and the process of mythmaking. It's also a movie in which The Rock throws a horse.
Published July 28, 2014
The haunting music and beauty of "The Phantom of the Opera" - now playing at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts - can still summon shivers, even right in the middle of the dog days of summer.
Published July 26, 2014
For just two guys, Royal Blood is certainly making a lot of noise. With the band's debut album set to arrive next month, the raucous duo of Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher is now on the road, with a stop at The Rave Monday, July 28 next up on the schedule. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Thatcher about the band's origins, its inspirations and the all-too-deservedly forgotten '90s band Aqua.
Published July 24, 2014
Every now and then, the writers here at OnMilwaukee.com decide to give other, unique jobs a try. Some have tried cheesemaking. Others the ballet. Me? Well, I fought in the Civil War.
Published July 22, 2014
"The Purge: Anarchy" finds DeMonaco coming closer to turning a good premise into an actually good movie. The sequel still feels like a missed opportunity for something smarter, sharper and just overall better, but hey, at least he made a decent horror thriller this time.
Published July 22, 2014
In addition to the successful rotation of the Oriental, the Downer and the Fox Bay movie theaters, the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival has recruited the Times Cinema to its Avengers team of old school Milwaukee movie houses.
Published July 21, 2014
Thankfully, "Fire and Rescue" is a step above its predecessor, if only because the movie was actually made for big screen consumption this time. Gone is the stiff, antiseptic joylessness of the first film, now upgraded to mere bland competence. If "Planes" was like eating cardboard, "Fire and Rescue" is slightly more digestible cardboard. So progress?
Published July 19, 2014
All musicians create new music. Even the most derivative Top 40 hit features a new combination of notes and lyrics. Very few, however, can claim to have come up with a whole new genre of sound. Chicago blues extraordinaire Corky Siegel is one of those few.
Published July 17, 2014
As a fan rooting for Argentina in the World Cup, last weekend was likely a little rough for Italian crooner Patrizio Buanne. This upcoming weekend, however, is shaping up much more nicely with two headlining performances set for Festa Italiana.
Published July 15, 2014
Today marked the kickoff of the Greater Together Challenge, a competition launched to create awareness, hope and ideas to dismantle segregation, as well as address racial and economic inequality in greater Milwaukee.