Falling somewhere between a cute gimmick film and a thoughtful consideration of old age, the sci-fi indie “Robot & Frank” centers on a fading former jewel thief who establishes a meaningful connection with a household automaton.
A winning directorial tone and a masterful lead performance turn this nutty premise into something credible, touching and human in this inspired buddy comedy.
First-time feature director Jake Schreier, working from a screenplay by newcomer Christopher D. Ford, doesn’t wallop you or prompt guffaws, but he blends fancy and melancholy in this tale set in Cold Springs, N.Y., in a near future in which helping-hand robots are common.
Frank Langella plays Frank Weld, a gentlemanly former cat burglar who specialized in jewel jobs. Now alone, depressed and losing his memory, Frank has no sources of stimulation besides shoplifting trinkets from the village boutique and visiting local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who shares his passion for those near- extinct pleasures called books.
The other half of the title makes its entrance when Frank’s grown son, Hunter (James Marsden), buys Frank a caregiving robot.
A white contraption with a male voice and a space helmet for a head, the robot initially riles the cantankerous Frank as it throws away his sugared cereal and plants a garden. But when Frank realizes that the robot has no morality codes programmed into its noggin, his circuits light up: He’ll train the robot to pick locks. With its superior memory, the robot will help him pull one last job.
As the action progresses from planning the caper to executing the heist to dodging authorities to dealing with the robot-averse sentiments of Frank’s daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), the film has flat spots.
With the exception of the likable Sarandon’s Jennifer, the nonrobot supporting characters go nowhere interesting. Jennifer’s technology-crazy boss (Jeremy Strong) is tediously one-note.
But when it focuses on the relationship of the title characters, and it usually does, the movie is a delightfully whimsical and sometimes richly affecting look at friendship, aging, technology, connection, and the blurring and stirring of memory.
Schreier’s retro style befits the kinder times from which Frank hails, and Langella delivers the darkness and depth necessary to counteract sentimentality and oversimplicity.
Interacting with a machine, Langella creates a captivating protagonist who is cunning, confused, vulnerable, frustrated and sometimes exasperating as his mind ebbs and flows. From the man who has portrayed Dracula, Nixon, and Clare Quilty, this is an unexpectedly memorable role.
As for the robot, which is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard in a tone that suggests Hal’s distant cousin, it has moments of its own. A favorite: a sight gag in which it appears at the heist scene in a black coat.