By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — They’re partners in crime. No, not Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma and Louise or Butch and Sundance, but Robot and Frank.
The caretaker robot may get first billing, but it’s the elderly thief who’s the moving main attraction in this abundantly warm and ingratiating but never syrupy caper movie that’s as light-fingered as its protagonist.
Robot & Frankis a science fiction comedy-drama/buddy caper flick set in the near future that might just steal your heart.
Frank Langella stars as Frank, a lonely, crusty, aging former cat burglar and convict who lives in upstate New York, where he struggles with senility. His memory during this early stage of dementia is just about totally unreliable, and yet in some ways he remains as sharp as a tack.
He shoplifts on occasion, mostly out of boredom, and flirts with the fetching town librarian — (remember libraries? remember books?) — played by Susan Sarandon, whose place of employment is about to be digitally replaced.
James Marsden plays his son, Hunter, a married Princeton grad, who resents the absentee father that Frank was when he was in prison but looks in on him regularly anyway. Liv Tyler plays Frank’s daughter, Madison, who is busy traveling around the world.
Yep, his kids are a yuppie and a hippie.
Worried about his dad’s declining faculties but not wanting to put him in a home, Hunter buys Frank a surprise gift, a domestic robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, that’s been programmed as a health care aide, devoted to improving Frank’s mental and physical health.
The remarkable droid is here to watch over Frank, to cook his meals and clean his house and be his calendar and keep him company.
And, it turns out, once Frank’s initial reluctance turns into gratefulness, to become his only friend -– even though Frank refrains from renaming it and continues to use the generic label.
And Robot is his colleague as well, because Frank programs it to help him with the elaborate heist he’s planning by picking locks and cracking safes. And as accomplices go, Robot is a quick learner.
This return to a life of crime -– Frank’s comfort zone — seems to be rejuvenating him in various ways as his human intelligence teams up with his odd-couple partner’s artificial intelligence to pull off their unlawful undertaking.
Impressive first-time director Jake Schreier concocts a well-judged portrait of our near future with barely a smidgen in the way of special effects (recall Woody Allen’s Sleeper to picture the minimalist level of science-fiction fuss) and he works from a thoroughly original screenplay by Christopher D. Ford that also includes a whopper of a niftily embedded twist that you are hereby defied to see coming.
Langella, Oscar-nominated as best actor for Frost/Nixon, excels once again, playing the Alzheimer’s-burdened title character with a subtle mix of whimsicality and melancholy, as well as impatience and disgust with his own decrepitude. He’s slyly and subtly funny, is in virtually every scene, and never makes a false move.
And best actress Oscar winner Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) brings her radiant glow to the proceedings even if she is playing a quiet, bespectacled librarian.
But the teaming that most intrigues here is that of Frank and Jake, the veteran watchable star and his rookie director to watch, as the end of one impressive career intersects with what would appear to be the beginning of another in the kind of movie that makes us look forward to any project either of them gets involved in.
So we’ll burgle 3 stars out of 4 for the sweetly stylish charmer, Robot & Frank, which looks in on the world’s technological near future while sneaking a peek at the near future waiting for each of us: old age.