Robot & Frank is a wasted opportunity, the chance to intelligently examine the scientific and ethical notions of robotics disregarded in favor of making a generic sentimental buddy comedy. It has the right cast and the right visual style, but the approach to the story is all wrong; the filmmakers regard its title robot not as an artificial intelligence bound by the laws of hard science fiction but rather as a foil, a sidekick, and comic relief. I see no reason to include a robot character if the idea is to make it think and behave in very human ways. That might play well in a family film or a cartoon, but in a more mature story like this, it comes off as a gross developmental miscalculation. I’m sure director Jake Shreler and writer Christopher D. Ford had the best of intentions, but unfortunately, their vision went astray.
Taking place at an unspecified but clearly not too distant future date, the central human character is Frank Weld (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar in his twilight years and in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He lives alone in a cluttered, unkempt house nestled in the woods of Upstate New York. Although his memory is slipping, he continues his daily routine of walking to the neighboring town and checking out books from the library. He has developed feelings for the librarian, a pleasant yet solemn woman named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who uses an early-model robot as a way to sort and shelve books. She laments that the building has been bought and will be converted into a library of the high tech, paperless variety. He regularly visits the local knick knack shop, where the owner (Ana Gasteyer) correctly suspects that he has been stealing from her.
He has two grown children. The daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), makes a living doing humanitarian work in impoverished countries and only occasionally contacts her father via a futuristic video screen. The son, Hunter (James Marsden), frequently sacrifices his professional and family life in the city for the sake of his father, who is clearly no longer able to take care of himself. Frank, a real curmudgeon, refuses to let Hunter take him to a nursing home. Hunter, in an effort to compromise, buys his father a caretaker robot (performed by Rachael Ma, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), which looks uncannily like Honda’s ASIMO. Apart from performing general domestic chores like cooking and cleaning, it has been programmed to encourage a healthy lifestyle as well as promote activities that will keep Frank’s mind engaged. Frank, a technophobe, initially wants nothing to do with the robot and repeatedly argues with it.
On the basis of what I’ve described so far, you’re probably assuming that Frank gradually lowers his defenses and befriends the robot. To an extent, you’d be right. However, it doesn’t have a lot to do with Frank’s loneliness or his memory lapses; the more he learns about the robot’s programming, the more he realizes he can manipulate it into being his accomplice on a new series of heists. Frank teaches the robot about scouting locations, reading blueprints, and picking locks; in due time, he and the robot are off on two jobs, one to rob the pretentious and arrogant new owner of the library, Jake (Jeremy Strong), the other to steal a rare first-edition copy of Don Quixote from Jennifer’s safe. It must have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it plays more like an odd couple sitcom episode and doesn’t take any notion of robotic programming seriously.
The more we learn about Frank, the less inclined we are to sympathize with him. There’s an especially blood boiling scene in which he blatantly and unapologetically uses Hunter as a diversion for eluding the authorities; given his past life, and given Hunter’s angry rant, one gets the sense that this would not be the first time Frank has done something like this. Nevertheless, the tone of the film is such that we’re supposed to root for Frank, and ultimately feel sorry for him. During the final scene, I knew he was deserving of medical care, but when it came to the love and support of his family, I wasn’t at all sure. Even his treatment of the robot was questionable, which is really saying something considering that robots are by definition not real people.
The ending is preceded by a plot twist, and although it’s implausible and unquestionably gimmicky, it might have resonated had it been used in a different movie, say a detective thriller or a romantic melodrama. Here, it’s stylistically out of place. I think the failure of Robot & Frank is fundamental: It applies a science fiction concept to a plot that isn’t anything remotely like science fiction. It has good actors, and its overall look is engaging, but its backbone, the title characters, are problematic. This is especially true of the robot, which is developed and treated not as an advanced machine but as a second tier human costar. If you bother to include a robot character in your screenplay, this approach doesn’t work. Here is a movie that could have been so much more than it was allowed to be.