OPERATING ACCORDING TO PROTOCOL: A Review of ROBOT & FRANK
It’s a fear that many of us must face one day. A fear that our own bodies will someday fail us, that our memory may become so fractured we are not even able to recognize our loved ones. It is this horror that forms the backbone of the lighthearted indie dramedy Robot & Frank.
Set in the “Not too distant future”, Frank Langella plays Frank, a retired cat burglar who is finding his memory rapidly deteriorating. Concerned about his well-being, his son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a robot assistant (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially wary (insisting it will murder him in his sleep), Frank tries to shut down the robot and get his son to take it away. But after being stuck living with it, he grows attached once he realizes he can teach it to assist in his burglaries.
The film has an endearing spark to it, the most charming part being the chemistry between Frank and the robot. Despite insisting that he is merely programming with no feelings, Sarsgaard instills a vibrant personality into the character. There is warmth that makes him feel more human than some of the supporting cast, many of whom we don’t see much of despite their importance to the plot (such as an underutilized Susan Sarandon).
Frank Langella himself is a powerhouse of acting, and if the film had a higher profile he would likely be gathering a few nominations around awards time. The complexity he brings into this role is remarkable. Frank (the character) is a man who is in denial about his memory lapses. He often finds himself confused, insisting several times that he just ate at a restaurant that’s been out of business for years, or even forgetting momentarily who his son is. There is a necessary delicacy Langella employs when showing these lapses that make them both believable and heart wrenching.
The film itself is largely about memory and the changing world around us. Frank discovers the library he frequents is doing away with physical books and is bringing in new computer technology. He has a rude awakening to find his favorite restaurant is now a Bath & Body shop. Frank is often able to remember the past with clarity, but unable to realize the change going on around him. His initial wariness of the robot further highlights this. When the robot tries to alter his diet he flat out refuses, preferring to “die eating cheeseburgers than live off of steamed cauliflower”.
But keep in mind that Robot & Frank is not an anti-technology film. On the contrary, it is a film that realizes we live in an ever-changing world and instead decides to focus on a character is who both resistant to and sometimes literally incapable of realizing this change. Frank’s mental degeneration serves as a metaphor to this fear, and a fear of aging for that matter, that many of us face ourselves. It is only when Frank embraces technology and change, and befriends his robot that he begins to feel happy again.
Robot & Frank isn’t a perfect film. As I said earlier, the supporting cast often feels underused, with Susan Sarandon barely gathering ten minutes of screen time, and Jeremy Strong’s entire character feels like a one note Straw Man being used to mock hipsters (he plays the young, obnoxious, and rich neighbor who becomes a target of Frank’s burglaries).
It also carries that all too common “indie” aesthetic that so many young first time film makers employ. But if we’re going to start considering “indie” to be a genre, then Robot & Frank, with its honest, heartfelt depiction of an aging man, and it’s sharp sense of humor, is a shining example of the best the genre can offer.