Before reviewing “Robot & Frank,” let me take a moment to observe that Frank Langella stars as a character named Frank in this movie, just as Mike Birbiglia plays a character tagged Mike in “Sleepwalk with Me,” another movie I reviewed this week. If someone will just cite a third instance in a new movie of this My Name, My Role Phenomena, we’ll officially have a trend happening.
OK, now on to the actual review. “Robot & Frank” is an amiable little film set in the near future that, like its burglar hero, manages to steal your affections. During the lazy final days of summer, this codger crime comedy goes down easy.
Frank (Langella) is a retired jewel thief and safecracker who, long after serving time in jail, is spending his not-so-golden final years living alone in a rambling house in a small town in the northeast. He passes his days chatting up the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) and covertly pocketing cheap tchotchkes, mostly just to see if he still has the touch, at a gift shop.
He has the beginnings of dementia, causing his two adult children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) to worry about him and interfere with his life more than he’d like. That is particularly the case when his son presents Dad with a clunky, short, R2-D2-like robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) that has been programmed to help Frank look after himself. The robot will cook healthy meals, encourage Frank to exercise, keep the house clean and so on.
Frank is disdainful of his new mechanical helper until he realizes that, lacking emotions, the robot makes a perfect partner in crime. Soon, Frank and the robot are casing locations and timing how fast the robot can open a safe.
The movie, the first feature film for both screenwriter Christopher D. Ford (“Atom TV”) and director Jack Schreier, has several not-quite-believable twists near the end, but they’re at least fun ones. It moves at a brisk pace, gives each of its main characters (including the robot) their moment to shine, and raises a few provocative questions along the way about how we treat the aging in this country and what we expect and want from technology in the future.
The supporting performances are mostly strong, but Langella is the show here. He’s not playing the cute elderly curmudgeon who turns up in so many films, but rather a fully-rounded character, one with his good moments and bad, his admirable characteristics and less likable ones. The actor makes it convincingly clear that there’s no way his on-screen Frank is going gentle into that good night.