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 Nov. 30, 2016
Marcus Lemonis' recent visit to Milwaukee for "The Profit" may not have gone according to plan, but he still has his sights on the Cream City, as his Bentley's Pet Stuff chain will open six new shops in around the city this weekend.
Published Nov. 29, 2016
While scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins' knowledge of the Milwaukee Rep's "A Christmas Carol" was mostly a blank slate, he was more than aware of the daunting legacy before him when he began work helping to reimagine the holiday classic.
Published Nov. 29, 2016
For many, Election Day was a day of shellshocked hurt, disappointment and fear. But today is a new day, and it's time to go to work doing good and helping those in need. Here are just a few ways you can reach out and make a difference.
Published Nov. 28, 2016
Christmas came early for Milwaukee, as Vogue Magazine gifted the city a flattering place in its recent "5 Industrial Cities Making America's Rust Belt Shine Again" travel article. See what they had to say!
Published Nov. 27, 2016
Netflix's much-anticipated "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life" premiered this holiday weekend, and, while most of the show played like a sloppy but warmly satisfying Thanksgiving dinner, the ending left an uneasy aftertaste.
Published Nov. 22, 2016
Kenneth Lonergan's movie "Manchester By the Sea" has been a part of Oscar talk ever since January, but before it hits town, audiences can get a taste of his work with the Chamber's "Lobby Hero." We learned more about the show and why Lonergan's material works so well.
Published Nov. 22, 2016
Christmas has come early for Netflix subscribers, as the service announced its new arrivals for December - including "Captain America: Civil War," only the biggest movie of the year. And that's far from all. Here's everything coming and going next month.
Published Nov. 21, 2016
Some excitement quite literally hit Farwell Avenue early Monday afternoon, as a significant part of a building set for demolition fell onto the street.
Published Nov. 20, 2016
Despite being surrounded by the unfamiliar, I felt like I was cozily at home during my stay at The Astor Hotel - and that's a pretty impressive achievement for a hotel, especially when a guest's guts are actively staging a violent coup against him.
Published Nov. 16, 2016
Progress is moving fast on The Westin Milwaukee hotel - which will hold 220 rooms and a restaurant when it opens in June 2017 - and as evidence, this morning, The Westin hosted a special ceremony and a tour of the views and rooms in progress.