Funny how some of the warmest heartbreakers in the science-fiction genre involve relationships between humans and machines.
There was Ray Bradbury's “I Sing the Body Electric,” a short story and classic “Twilight Zone” episode about a wise and kindly automaton grandmother (Josephine Hutchinson) who becomes a beloved member of a motherless family; Richard Matheson's “Steel,” also a short story and “Twilight Zone” teleplay about a failed boxer (Lee Marvin) who invests all his battered hope in a robot heavyweight that's obsolete and breaking down; and Steven Spielberg's “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a 2001 film based on a Brian Aldiss short story about a little android “boy” (Haley Joel Osment) programmed with the ability to love.
“Robot & Frank” follows that well-used man-machine relationship plot gimmick, too, but with fresher, less sentimental and subversively funnier twists, while still managing to be heartwarmingly human, too.
Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired burglar, a once-skilled second-story man (although he's done two prison stretches) now entering his forgetful twilight years in the near future. His adult children, Hunter (Oklahoma-born James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) are worried he's no longer fit to live alone and they're thinking it's time for the nursing home.
But then Hunter thinks he has a better idea, and buys Frank a walking, talking robot butler (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to improve the cantankerous old man's physical and mental health.
Frank wants no part of this, but it beats the alternative, so he puts up with the little machine's obnoxious preaching about diet and exercise until it gradually dawns on him that Robot could be a useful tool in breaking back into the burglary business.
Since knowledge of the law and the moral implications of things like stealing are not part of his programming, Robot complies with Frank's wishes and becomes a skilled lock-picker. And the first target Frank picks is the neighborhood library where he's been carrying on a long-standing flirtation with lovely librarian Jennifer (an irresistibly fetching Susan Sarandon).
What transpires when Frank resumes his felonious ways is at turns surprising, bitingly funny and bittersweet enough to make one's eyes well up, without ever sliding into sappiness.
“Robot & Frank” is an impressive debut for director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford, both NYU graduates and co-founders of Waverly Films.
But the real treat here is Langella's masterful portrayal of a willful and mischievous man beginning to feel the chill of his winter years, and the consequences of neglect.
‘Robot & Frank'
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard.