In the movies, technology is usually represented one of two ways: a hallelujah-worthy miracle or a soul-deadening trespass on the natural order of things. Robot and Frank, a film receiving near-unanimous praise at the Sundance Film Festival, is smart enough to know better. Technology, like everything in life, isn't black and white, and is only as good or bad as the people who interact with it.
Okay, so here's the pitch: Frank Langella and a robot crack safes. You'd be forgiven for offering a great big "meh." So please believe me when I say that Robot and Frank not only nails all the heartwarming family scenes expected of a Sundance dramedy, but also has great insight into the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and the fractured lucidity of memory.
Set in a quiet, affluent town outside of New York City in the near future, the world of Robot and Frank isn't all that different from ours. All the handheld devices are clear rectangles with video links, but the conferencing screen above the fireplace that answers voice commands will still wink out if someone is calling from Turkmenistan.
Of more concern to avid reader Frank (played by Frank Langella) is the imminent re-conceptualizing of the local library. "Maybe we can create something about the Dewey Decimal System," the squirrily yuppie benefactor played by Jeremy Strong suggests to long suffering librarian Susan Sarandon. The new "community facility" will not actually store books (why bother?) but will celebrate the now antiquated human relationship with printed media.
Sarandon is no Luddite – she gets on well with her boxy robot aide Mr. Darcy, but Frank is quick to reject any artificial intelligence in his house when his son (James Marsden) demands that he accept a helper 'bot.
Frank, a divorcee, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's and will soon be unable to care for himself. The shiny white robot (with Peter Sarsgaard's voice) cooks and cleans for the begrudging old man, and has a primary programming to do anything to improve Frank's health. He also has knowledge of, but no specific requirements to adhere to state and federal laws, which quickly comes in handy when Frank decides to restart his career in cat burglary.
It takes an actor of immense talent to play an odd couple scenario opposite a plastic suit. Director Jake Schreier makes both humorous and touching use of the Kuleshov Effect in the robot's blank, round head, but Langella's sympathetic geriatric avoids the usual cliches of the grumpy old man. We see and understand the world from his point of view, so his disease-driven breaks from reality are all the more heartbreaking.
Frank's memories haunt him, but so do the absence of memories. He did a stint in prison, missing the shank of his son's childhood, which has left irrevocable scars. The robot, however, can recall (and project) images of all it experiences, a great tool when casing a joint, but a disquieting factor as Frank tries to come to grips with his new buddy's lack of a soul.
"I'm very impressed with your progress, Frank. Planning this burglary was a great idea." I can't imagine what kind of person wouldn't laugh at a line like that coming out of a robot's, um, audio hole. And that's just one of Robot and Frank's bring-the-house-down moments. More than anything else, this is a crowdpleaser – a heist picture, a buddy picture, a quirkily dysfunctional family picture. It's super predictable that the initially resistant Langella will grow to love the robot, but that doesn't blunt the overwhelming emotion I felt when he had to cradle the small appliance like a child to push buttons.
Robot and Frank certainly embraces the promise in new technology, but is eager to point out its potential pitfalls. Douchey Jeremy Strong looks like a yutz playing invisible virtual reality drums and a synthesized string quartet at the remodeled Library grand opening is certainly played for laughs. But also held up for some ridicule is the reactionary pro-humanist faction, as embodied by Frank's globe-trotting liberal daughter played by Liv Tyler. (Yes, when I mentioned Turkmenistan earlier, I actually meant it – the impoverished citizenry is described as "so beautiful, but so sad, but so beautiful" when shown in fingertip guided digital slideshow.)
When Tyler's character first enters in the middle of the second act it seems like she's just meant to be a joke, but Robot and Frank is too good of a movie not to allow everyone a little depth. Even the small town Barney Fife is a mix of dopey and sharp in a way I haven't seen in a while. For all the cool stuff about robots, this is very much a movie about people.
There are times I watch a movie and wonder if it was made just for me. Robot and Frank with its empathetic characters, precise and thorough investigation of a science fiction concept and its rock solid Hollywood screenwriting beats had me laughing, cheering and, yes, drying my eyes. It's only January, but I have a hunch that once I've seen nine other movies of this caliber this year I'll know my ten best.