This is an unexpected, rather splendid film. And it sticks with being unexpected, the plot twisting in directions that old Jack didn’t see coming. Nothing crass or illogical, mind, but more than enough to entertain my fore-brain whilst dabbling in the sentimental instinct I keep in my bile duct. Robot & Frank – the world of old folk that’s a-coming.
It’s the future. Frank, the languorous and fascinating Frank Langella giving it criminal, is an ageing Dad with memory and housekeeping issues. His kids, grown-up and far away, can’t keep visiting because it’s so far and so hard (the insensitive, unthinking, ungrateful little shits – albeit the film doesn’t make this point. And, let’s be clear, that’s nicer than what C-Word Curt said). So, it being the future, son Hunter (James Marsden playing it straight) brings him a Robot to do the housework, the food, and the traipsing along beside him as he wanders town and library being churlish or flirty as the moment demands.
Robot – the voice of Peter Sarsgaard and the body of Rachael Ma – is at first a neutral presence, as irritating to the old man as say, a new Nurse who steals my fucking Jaffa Cakes and lies about it. It tidies, it offers emotional queries, it quite possibly doles out the loo roll if Frank takes a suspiciously Alzheimery dump. And then – for Frank turns out to be a retired cat burglar – the two becomes collaborators in crime.
Nope, I didn’t see that coming. The film does fun surprises. Old Frank goes to the town library to flirt with Susan Sarandon‘s Jennifer, the friendly librarian who he nearly dates. There’s forgetfulness that stymies that moment. The two look at an old and glorious copy of Don Quixote as she breaks the news that the library is being modernised (pfft) and the books are going in favour of a community centre experience. Cue theft.
Frank and Robot plan things properly, practise with laughs, then go get the book. Their plans build and revenge theft is taken on the poxy little tit who now leads the community-library. He is a millionaire who gives off wanky-modern-hollywood-dick. This Jake, thankfully not spelt Jayk, is played by the jitteringly angry and spiteful Jeremy Strong. Plan 2 is to get a set of jewels Jake’s girlfriend was wearing at the launch. And they succeed.
And are instantly suspected. And police appear, and there is a van in the lane, and Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) visits, and there is creeping about and hiding of jewels, and – for a few ghastly scenes – Frank’s friend is turned off… mucho twisty-turniness. And underneath this lies a message with no small fear attached: much as Frank is plainly slipping into dementia, so the imperative rises to wipe his friend’s memory to protect Frank from the consequences of their crime. It’s sad, not inevitable given the fresh approach of the film, and carried old Jack to the ending and one last plot-gift that had me and the TV room weeping for Frank and family. Happy-sad.
Robot & Frank is a fresh angle on an increasingly common theme. Crumbly Film Template 10 (You Won’t Remember You in 90 Minutes) has sneaked into a good few films recently, not least Is Anybody There? (2008), The Lady in the Van (2015), and the middle-aged onset of In the Courtyard / Dans La Cour (2014)). Here, it tickled my sci-fi gene and was played out in a couple of lovely performances – and several good-quality supporting ones.
Frank Langella gives the story its heft, convincing throughout as a slowly disintegrating man acting out the complex skills that made his life. I respected film Frank for all his sins. The team behind Robot take it from blank canvas to friend to a feared loss without a clunk along the way. I worried for that memory chip. Sarandon plays a relatively small but pivotal part – this time giving it soft and sympathetic where The Company You Keep (2012) demanded radical and hard – and Marsden and Tyler play things believably straight, with a touch of the hippie underneath. I could feel they were the uncriminal kids of the old crim, surrounding him with frankly undeserved but genuine love. Forgiveness and understanding in old families is an all-ways thing. Especially if Dad is losing his marbles.
Robot & Frank is fresh, futuristic, inventive and tender. Go buy at the usual outlets.