Robot & Frank Directed by: Jake Schreier
Written by: Christopher D. Ford
Starring Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Strong
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Rated PG-13 | 90 Minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2012
I don’t know much about Jack Schreier. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like anyone else does, either. According to IMDb, Schreier is the ex-keyboardist for Francis and the Lights, a pop-synth indie band that has toured with the likes of Drake, MGMT, and Ke$ha.
Aside from Robot & Frank, Schreier’s only other directorial credit is a 2005 short film, Christopher Ford Sees a Film, in which Christopher D. Ford (Robot & Frank‘s writer) sees a terrible film that presumably affects him deeply. As for Ford’s work as a screenwriter, he’s got a couple of projects in the works, including Eli Roth’s Grindhouse-inspired horror slasher, Thanksgiving.
I say all this only because it is extremely rare to watch a smart, thoughtful, and altogether well-made film like Robot & Frank and discover it was the feature-length debut of an earnest, young filmmaker and a no-doubt talented scribe. There are plenty of great first films by directors, but Robot & Frank feels like the work of an established, tenured filmmaker – someone who has matured and refined his style through other films.
The premise of Schreier and Ford’s film is simple, and delightfully so. Set in the near future, Frank, an ex-convict and master thief (Frank Langella), receives a gift from his son, Hunter (James Marsden): a robot butler programmed to look after him.
Frank, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is getting progressively worse. He’s unable to look after himself, and his memories melt together and prevent him from having real conversations with his family. The robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) is programmed to provide Frank with therapeutic care, including a fixed daily routine, moderate exercise and cognitive-enhancing activities like gardening.
Initially frustrated with the robot’s presence in his life, as it cramps his style, Frank eventually warms up to his new Astronaut-esque companion when he realizes the robot is not programmed to distinguish between legal recreational activities and criminal ones. While the robot understands the dictionary definition of stealing, it cannot judge whether the act is right or wrong. Of course Frank, who seems to have his bearings after a few weeks with the robot, decides to apprentice the robot into the cat burglar business.
Frank teaches the Robot all the tools of the trade, including how to case buildings and the subtle art of lock-picking. Together, the two plan a heist in order to win the affections of the local librarian, Jennifer(Susan Sarandon): they steal an antique copy of Don Quixote from the library, which is being renovated by digital-age hipsters and turned into a community center in the wake of declining interest in print media.
Robot & Frank is an amalgam of two very different types of films. On one hand, it’s the kind of quirky, indie drama you would expect from a young, first-time filmmaker. On the other, it’s an emotionally mature, thoughtful meditation on family and growing old. That should be made clear, the film is not about coming to terms with death or loss – like so many dramas are – but rather aging: getting old, living with regrets, losing the ability to be self-sufficient.
The film also speaks to our dependency on technology, which is becoming more and more a necessary part of our lives. When’s the last time you went an entire day without your cell phone, or without the Internet? It’s become an extension of ourselves in a way that informs and influences how we live. The subtle nods to a future without print, where everything is digital and even your robot caregiver looks like an Apple Store Daft Punk Spaceman are a premonition of a future where man and technology will no longer be separate entities.
What is it about artificial intelligence that fascinates us? I suppose that, ultimately, robotics is the discipline of emulating human life. Perhaps it is our own curiosity of the human body – of how we function – that pushes us to create machines in the likeness of man. Robots have always fascinated me, and to see one used in real-world application is both exciting and yet, depressing. A robot can be a friend, it can make you meals and even help you case libraries and steal things, but it doesn’t have a soul. it does have memories, though – memories that can be wiped at the press of a button, a robot with Alzheimer’s, doomed to re-learn things all over again.
Poignant, humorous, and intriguing, Robot & Frank boasts wonderful performances by Langella and Sarsgaard, who plays the robot as a warmer, kinder version of HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey) or GERTY (Moon) without being the over-the-top annoyance that C-3P0 and his robotic butler brethren are known for. I loved this film, plain and simple. It will no doubt be in my top 5 films of 2012, and excites me for what’s to come from Schreier, Ford, and the next generation of filmmakers.