Robot & Frank is about a robot, and Frank, and I’d like to say it is as charmingly irresistible as you might suppose from the cute posters all around town, but hand on heart? I cannot. It’s OK, I guess, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and, in the end, settles for what I most feared it would settle for: sentimentality. A pity, as the set-up is brilliant, and the questions it throws up — are you still you, once your mind starts to fail?; who is going to look after all our old? — so worth asking, but it never properly gets to grips with any of them. Plus, there’s a twist at the end that I can’t reveal, as I don’t want to get into trouble with The Spoiler Police — last time, they bundled me into the back of a van, and wouldn’t let me have a lawyer or anything — which undermines absolutely everything that has gone before. You’ll jerk up in your cinema seat and think: there was no need for any of this film to happen! I don’t like being a grass, but I’m minded to alert The Sloppy Plotting Police, who are even more brutal than The Spoiler Police. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robot & Frank were actually made to do time.
So, what do we actually have here? Well, set at some point in the near-future, this stars Frank Langella as Frank, a retired septuagenarian jewel thief whose children are concerned he can no longer live alone. He has become forgetful. He isn’t eating right. His house is a mess. He keeps wandering off to Harry’s Cafe in town, even though Harry’s Cafe is long gone, and it’s now a posh soap shop. His only meaningful pastime is visiting the local library (soon to be digitised) and flirting some with the lovely librarian, Jennifer. (Susan Sarandon in her third drippy role in a row; what’s your problem, Sooze?)
What to do about Frank? His son, Hunter (James Marsden), visits every week, but it’s a ten-hour round trip for him, so hardly convenient. His daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is a travelling globetrotter and rather away with the fairies anyway. So Hunter trucks up one day with a robot in his boot, programmed to work as a carer. Robot is cute, like a kids’ spaceman toy, but bigger. Robot, as voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, has a certain innocent warmth. More, Robot can cook and Robot can clean and Robot can go to the shops. I would kill for a robot like Robot. But, initially, Frank isn’t having it. He yells at Hunter to get ‘that hunk of crap’ out of his house. Frank is irascible, obviously, just as all old men are irascible in cinema, but he soon takes to Robot, as he would have to, if there were to be any film. And he even recovers his mojo when he discovers he can teach Robot to pick locks and crack open safes. Frank is back in business, and has his eye on the toxic yuppie who is in charge of digitising the library, lives down the road, and has a wife who is fond of draping herself in big fat diamonds.
It’s an OK film, like I said, but it never really discovers its own mojo. Although Robot keeps repeating ‘I am not a human being’ he is also acquiring more memories, which makes him what? More like one? As Frank’s memories fade, does this make him less of a person? The trouble is, all this gets lost as irritating whimsy takes over, and suffocates it. It’s as if the director (Jake Schreier) and writer (Christopher D. Ford) threw up their hands and said, ‘Let’s stop chasing any emotional truths here. Let’s have Frank outwit the local sheriff instead.’ And that’s another thing: Frank’s memory, and how it performs, is entirely driven by the plot. He can turn from clueless to sly on a sixpence, depending on the demands of the narrative, which means that, although it is always a joy to see Langella on screen, you can never fully believe in Frank. Still, it’s all fairly watchable, at least until the soapy, tear-filled ending. Disappointing, that, and as for the plot twist, I’d be very surprised if Robot & Frank don’t get ten years.