Robot and Frank
Reviewed by Raz Greenberg
10 December 2012
Independent genre filmmakers of the twenty-first century seem to have strong affection for robot and android characters. Dark modern takes on the Frankenstein story such as James Bai's Puzzlehead (2005) or Philip Chidel's Subject Two (2006) alongside Greg Pak's 2003 Asimov-style anthology Robot Stories (my favorite genre film of the past decade) demonstrate how stories about such characters can be done on small budget while dealing with the big questions of humanity's place in the world, through either dark thrillers or emotional dramas.
Jack Schreier's Robot and Frank belongs in the latter category. The film follows Frank (Frank Langella) an aging former burglar who slowly deteriorates into dementia. When it becomes obvious that Frank is having difficulty taking care of himself, his son Hunter (James Marsden) brings him a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him. Though Frank is initially annoyed by the robot's insistence on leading him into the "proper" life of a retired old man, he soon learns how to take advantage of the robot in fulfilling his grand caper fantasies, or wooing the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), all while his mental condition continues to deteriorate.
Robot and Frank impressed me, first and foremost, with its solid sense of worldbuilding, achieved in spite of the director's limited filming resources. Schreier introduces the near future society in his film not through grand visions of flashy sets, but rather through small nuances of everyday life in a sleepy suburban town. The town's library, one of the film's central locations, demonstrates the process in which society abandons written and printed storage of information in favor of digital preservation, and it becomes symbolic for pushing aside the older members of society—the patronizing manner in which the younger staff of the library treat both Frank (whose old fashioned lifestyle they take as a cool retro affectation) and Jennifer is paralleled with the removal of the last printed books from the library's shelves. It is implied that Frank's son is a successful middle-class yuppie, who enjoys all the advantages that high-tech society has to offer, but at the same time he is portrayed as a depressed, tired, and unsatisfied person; Frank's idealist daughter (Liv Tyler) is equally mocked for a naturalist approach that rejects the integration of advanced technology into society. Robot and Frank presents us with a perfect world filled with flawed people.
Frank himself is one of these flawed people, and he is perhaps the most pathetic character in the film. His deteriorating mental condition causes him to sink deeper into glorified dreams about his past as a daring, romantic thief (a past that he mostly spent, in reality, doing prison time) and his insistence on hanging on to these dreams turns him into a futuristic Don Quixote—longing for a past that never existed and viewed by the people of the present as a weird, if not outright dangerous lunatic. One interesting element in the film is the discussion of the robot character's memory, and Frank's dilemma of whether or not to erase it—at first, due to his annoyance of the robot getting in his way, and later because the memories stored by the robot might incriminate him. Frank, who slowly loses his own memory, realizes just how precious memory can be, and cannot bring himself to bring an end to it—even if it's an artificial memory. Another interesting layer here is that the robot character accepts Frank's crime fantasies as they are, not questioning his past or the morality behind them, making it the perfect replacement for human company: while Frank's son gave him the robot in an attempt to push him into his normative social role as a retired old man, the robot's presence fuels his rebellion against that very same social role. And there is something both funny and sad about this rebellion: the audience roots for Frank, even when his actions are questionable and when it becomes clear that he cannot possibly get away with them.
Schreier's vision is brought to life on the screen with a uniformly excellent cast. While the A-list actors are a departure from the general low-budget look, they fit well within their roles. Langella, whom I have always associated with roles of cool, in-control villains, plays a sad version of these same roles—now the world is simply unbothered by his actions. Sarandon plays the antithesis to Frank's character—she is also unhappy about being an old woman rejected by a young world, but unlike Frank, she has learned to accept it as an unavoidable reality. Marsden and Tyler, both actors who gained brief fame for their roles in youth-oriented films, play people who are either frustrated by their passage from youth to adulthood (Marsden) or insist on ignoring this passage (Tyler). And Peter Sarsgaard pays a great nostalgic homage to the cute film and television robots of the '80s in his voicing of the robot character—which, I guess, can be seen as another commentary on aging in the future.
Robot and Frank is simply one of the best science fiction films I have seen this year. It works wonderfully as both a compelling and touching futuristic story, and as a powerful metaphor for society's treatment of its elders. I eagerly await Schreier's next project.