Most of us, if we’re honest, probably quite fancy the idea of a robot butler. Ever since The Jetsons, pop culture has been painting a picture of the future that involves cybernetic organisms taking care of the kinds of menial tasks we can’t really be bothered to do ourselves. In reality, we’re not quite there yet, but Robot & Frank does a convincing job of portraying a near-future world in which robots have become a completely normal part of everyday life.
The titular Frank is an ex-cat burglar whose memory is failing. Since his adult children are off living their own lives and can’t care for him, his son decides a new-fangled off-brand Asimo would make the perfect care assistant. Despite Frank’s initial protestations that the robot is a “death machine”, he soon figures out that while it might adhere to the Three Laws of Robotics, it isn’t so concerned about any federal or state laws – so when the robot insists that Frank develops a project to keep his mind active, he teaches it all the skills it needs to become the perfect partner in crime.
But while planning the robbery does give Frank a reason to get up in the morning, it can’t change several basic facts about his life: namely, that he’s old, that he’s ill, and that he’s very alone. The relationship between Frank and the robot is the focus of the film, and while it’s frequently laugh out loud funny, it’s also very sad. Whenever Frank interacts with other people, it becomes clear just how ill he really is – alone with the robot, he’s charming, funny, and full of stories, but out there in the world, he struggles to adapt to the ways in which things have changed, mostly because he can’t remember that they have.
As you’ll have gathered from that description, Robot & Frank isn’t exactly a high octane thriller. It’s quiet, understated, and careful. Christopher D Ford’s script is tight, engaging, and funny, while first time director Jake Schreier composes every shot with care, adding a kind of unobtrusive beauty to even the most domestic of scenes. It’s all rather lovely; it’s impossible not to become drawn into the world of the movie (which isn’t, after all, a particularly different one than the one you live in right now) and to begin to really care about these characters. Like all the best science fiction movies, the focus is on the story and characters, not the technology; that’s just there to show how, no matter how much things seem to change, some things will always stay the same.
The performances are all fantastic: Frank Langella does most of the heavy lifting, cutting the sadness of the story with just enough charm and humour to avoid sinking into mawkishness, making Frank’s plight entirely believable. The supporting cast are all perfectly pitched, too; from Susan Sarandon’s long-suffering librarian to Jeremy Strong’s eminently hateable hipster, the peripheral characters are well-developed enough that it really does seem like the world beyond Frank’s house is carrying on without him.
The only slight flaw, performance-wise, is that although Peter Sarsgaard is great as the voice of the robot, his voice is so distinctive that it’s hard to shake the image of Sarsgaard reading lines in a recording booth long enough to actually see the robot as a character. (Although given that it frequently protests that it isn’t a character, isn’t alive, maybe that’s not such an issue after all.)
There aren’t really any villains in this story – or, at least, none that can be fought and defeated to achieve a happy ending. There’s just time, and the frailty of the human body. It’s handled with a light touch, but at some point towards the end of this sweet, indie sci-fi comedy, you might find yourself contemplating your own mortality. Make sure you bring tissues.
Robot & Frank is out in UK cinemas on the 8th March.
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