aging, cinema, film reviews, films, Frank Langella, friendship, getting old, grown children, indie comedies, Jake Schreier, James Marsden, Jeremy Sisto, Liv Tyler, Moon, Movies, near future, Peter Sarsgaard, Robot and Frank, robots, sci-fi, Short Circuit, Spike Jonze, Susan Sarandon, technology
What, exactly, is friendship? Most, if not all, of us will have at least one friend: if you’re Lone Wolf McQuaid, you probably only have one; if you’re George Bailey, you’ve got at least a couple dozen. How much give-and-take is required for a relationship to be considered a “friendship?” Can the butler be friends with the lady-of-the-house? Can parents be friends with their children? What about non-human friends? Can humans be friends with animals? We know that children can be friends with aliens, thanks to ET and those darned Reese’s Pieces, and we know that Steve Guttenberg pals around with Number 5 but what about the rest of us: could we ever truly consider a robot to be one of our best buddies?
Robot and Frank, the feature-film debut of Jake Schreier, explores the subject of human-robot friendship in a way that manages to avoid both the easy sentimental notes and silly humor that usually capsizes films like this. The story, as many truly great stories are, is just about as simple as they come. In the near future (think video-phones and hovering cars), aging former cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) is beginning to exhibit the first signs of dementia and his grown children Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) are worried about him. Not worried enough to pause their fast-paced lives (Hunter is a corporate go-getter whereas Madison is a globe-trotting, socially-aware do-gooder) and actually spend time with him, mind you, but concerned enough to know that he needs a little extra help. Hunter, being the tech-savvy problem-solver that he is, decides to splurge and get his father a robot assistant (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). At first, old-fashioned Frank views Robot as nothing more than a creepy talking tin-can, an automated nursemaid to help alleviate his absentee children’s’ guilt over his well-being. In time, however, Frank comes to see the amiable Robot as something more: a ready, if not necessarily willing, accomplish in Frank’s newest heist plans. Over time, however, Frank will come to see Robot as something more: a genuine friend.
On the surface, there’s about a million different ways that Robot and Frank could’ve become a chore to sit through. The film could have played up the disparity between Frank and Robot, making this one of those noxious buddy films that always seem to star Zach Galifianakis and some unfortunate “other.” You know the type: Frank keeps being old-fashioned and stubborn…Robot shakes his head and gives one of those “Oh, Frank!” looks…the same watered-down formula we’ve been receiving since the filmmakers decided to rip off The Odd Couple. On the other hand, this could have been played as a real tear-jerker, one of those films where you arrive with a box of Kleenex or you don’t show up at all. After all, Frank isn’t exactly a spring chicken and we definitely get plenty of reminders of his failing mental state throughout the film. It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to imagine a film where Frank lies on his dead bed and Robot tenderly holds him, weeping little tears of oil from his eye sockets: this isn’t that film, either.
Instead, Robot and Frank is one of those rare films: an utterly jubilant, funny and smart buddy comedy about aging, family, doing what makes you happy and flipping off the world while doing it. The writing is exceptionally sharp, making the relationship between Frank and Robot feel completely natural and right: there’s nothing that feels gimmicky about their scenes together. Chalk it up to the fact that Langella, 74 years old when the film was released, is one of the more rock-solid actors of his generation and that Sarsgaard manages to inject Robot with just enough pathos and humanity to be relateable. Robot isn’t the cute ball of energy that was Short Circuit’s Number 5 but he’s also as far from the cold inhumanity of HAL as a robot can get. If anything, Robot (and Sarsgaard’s performance) reminds of Kevin Spacey’s performance as Gerty, the robotic intelligence in Moon: Sarsgaard’s deadpan delivery of such lines as “Frank, that cereal is for children: enjoy this grapefruit” and the amazing “I can’t promise that I’ll allow the actual burglary but I’m glad to see you so enthusiastic” are the wellsprings for much of the film’s funniest moments.
In fact, despite several indicators that Robot and Frank is of the distinct “indie dramedy” family (read: humor so depressing that you’ll chuckle solemnly while throwing yourself from a window), the film is actually very buoyant and quite funny. There’s a fresh, vibrant quality to Frank and Robot’s burgeoning friendship, a quality which permeates nearly every frame of the film. Even when things begin to get heavier in the back half, as Frank must contemplate wiping out Robot’s memory in order to hide his felonious activities from the police (Jeremy Sisto, in a rather odd cameo that feels cut-down from a more substantial role), the film manages to maintain a fleetness that makes it the furthest thing from a “feel-good-about-feeling-bad” film. The film never shies away from the reality of Frank’s situation but it never wallows in future misery, either: we know that this is, ostensibly, Frank’s last hurrah, as it were, and it’s nice that the film doesn’t condescend to him, even if some of the younger nitwit characters do.
From a craft standpoint, Robot and Frank is really quite beautifully made. The cinematography, by Matthew J. Lloyd, is a continual knockout, combining with the evocative “indie-ish” score to create a mood that most resembles Spike Jonze or Gondry-lite. A mentioned previously, the acting is exceptional across the board, with special attention merited by Langella’s outstanding, nuanced performance and Sarsgaard’s stellar voice-work. Susan Sarandon even shows up (is she contractually obligated to appear in every indie film from the past five years) as a kindly librarian who appears to be sweet on Frank: their relationship provides some genuinely nice emotional heft and a truly powerful latter-half revelation that manages to recast several events in a different light.
All in all, Robot and Frank is a truly moving, relatively cliche-free film that features a really neat friendship as its core. While other films might treat the concept of a human-robot friendship as a gimmick, Schreier’s film actually takes the concept seriously. These two don’t become buddies because the script tells them to: Robot and Frank become friends because, in the real world, that’s probably just what would happen. Minus the hover-cars, of course.