All of man’s creations are, in the end, only a reflection of ourselves. There have been a number of films out recently, like Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green, that play off that same theme. But where Timothy Green overextended itself, Robot & Frank has found the perfect means of telling such a story.
The film follows Frank (played beautifully by Frank Langella) as an aging man in the near future who has been suffering from memory loss. His only friend is the town librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) who enjoys his company and indulges in his occasional memory slips. Due to the growing frustration of his two grown children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), his son decides to get him a robot to help him around the house and make sure he is staying active.
Although the two do not get along at first, the contrast between the clean, futuristic machine and the old man that has a clear dislike for technology creates the perfect metaphor for the film. “The image of the movie that we always return to is Frank in the woods with his robot. From the perspective of the visual motif, we wanted to make the robot his first venture into the modern world that is just embracing that kind of technology. We wanted to create a place that was on the verge of the kind of future but not exactly,” director Jake Schrier tells Press Pass LA.
As the film progresses we find out that Frank used to be a cat burglar and spent long stretches of his life in jail away from his children. A natural con man Frank has been stealing from a local boutique once a week and has raised the suspicion of the store’s owner. All of that changes when he finds out that not only does his new robot helper provide him an excuse to get out of tricky situations but the robot is surprisingly adept at stealing.
This gives Frank new life and a chance to relive his glory days as he plans a heist of the local library to steal a priceless book to impress Jennifer. Meanwhile the robot acts as a friend, guardian and confidant. This begins to trouble everyone in his family, including the robot himself who reminds Frank multiple times that he is not really alive.
The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, manages to come off as surprisingly human despite its design. Unlike other futuristic robots the machine used in Robot & Frank lacks defining characteristics and seems to be a composite of many robots that already exist.
It is the voice of Sarsgaard that brings the machine to life and makes it a fleshed out (no pun intended) character that the audience truly cares about. “What we thought with Peter is that he has such a level of empathy and caring naturally in his voice and we thought we could clip it and turn it monotone and it would still come through. Even though it is not an emotive performance on the face, it does come through,” explains Schreier.
This is the first feature length movie by Schreier and he shows considerable talent. A film like this could have been much more over the top and forced but nothing about the reality he has created seems false. This entire movie could, and probably eventually will, happen in real life.
Despite the straightforward plot there are some major surprises in the film that should not be spoiled. Robot & Frank manages to bring up some major questions about the nature of being human, trust and what it means to be alive. While none of them are ever really answered that is what makes the film so effective.
The film has been making the rounds on the festival circuit including the Los Angeles Film Festival where it was well-received. It opens in theaters August 24th.