Arts movie review

Finding friends in robots

Amid laughs, Robot & Frank provokes discussion about the future of social robotics


Robot & Frank

Directed by Jake Schreier

Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon

Rated PG-13

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Robot & Frank is not your standard science fiction flick. It doesn’t ooze with dramatic futuristic visions or sexualized characters — instead, it is a stunning masterwork of subtlety. Set in a small town in the near future, the charming and conniving retired cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) is struggling with dementia. Left to his own devices, his house and his memory are in complete chaos. Confronted by the gravity of the situation, Frank’s concerned son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a live-at-home health care aid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to assist Frank.

Frank is enraged by the idea of having a robot nanny; a particularly hilarious scene in the movie is full of cursing and dramatic quips about killing robots. To be clear, this movie is not The Terminator or I, Robot, where robots gain artificial intelligence and revolt against their human makers. Rather, Robot & Frank follows the arc of the friendship between Frank and the robot — if you can even call it friendship at all, since technically the robot cannot feel — and the heart of this movie is about a family’s difficulty identifying and responding to an aging parent. The film’s main conflict, similar to other Sundance Film Festival winners, is rooted in human folly.

At first, the walking, talking, cooking and cleaning robot shines as a live-in caretaker. But, successes in improving Frank’s diet and memory capabilities notwithstanding, the robot has stark limitations in its understanding. For example, when Frank asks about stealing, it responds that it has no thoughts on the matter. Frank immediately starts to take advantage of the situation, and the power roles reverse. Rather than take up gardening or cooking, Franks turns his attention to heist-planning and training the robot as his devious sidekick. With a human caretaker, such power play would have been far less likely. This pivotal event begs the question: How much do we really gain — or give up — by outsourcing tasks to a robot?

Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) obliquely touches upon this point during her preposterous tirade against “machine enslavement.” However, the entire plot is a missed opportunity for the director to dive further into the subject, and Tyler’s lackluster performance only makes matters worse.

A more riveting performance comes in the form of Frank’s love interest Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Jennifer is the town’s librarian and has her own helper robot, which she nicknames Mr. Darcy. Though the town’s library is due to close since the owners believe its unnecessary considering all books are available online, Jennifer offers a thoughtful, calm perspective on the matter.

Robot & Frank never takes sides on the ethical and moral issues of social robots; instead, the film offers a suite of situations that provoke the audience to fully contemplate the issue. Amidst a colorful backstory of jewelry theft, love, and family conflict, the magical on-screen chemistry between Frank and the robot provides the meat of the movie’s humor and wisdom. Disarmingly charming, this movie is a must-see this fall.

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