His sidekick has special memory
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, August 24, 2012
Robots aren’t particularly known for their sense of humor.
That’s why the gentle laughs produced by “Robot & Frank” -- a clever, unexpectedly touching dramedy about the relationship between an aging former cat burglar (Frank Langella) and his robotic caregiver -- catch you a bit off guard. Some of the laughs come just from hearing the robot’s voice (provided by Peter Sarsgaard) as he negotiates with the increasingly forgetful Frank, who’s none too happy to have a babysitter. Sarsgaard delivers such throw-away lines as “If you let go of me, I’ll do the dishes” with a delicious deadpan that’s halfway between the blandishments of a psychopath and the wry observations of a shrink.
In fact, Robot, as he is called, is a little of both.
The automaton comes courtesy of Frank’s son (James Marsden), who has reluctantly bowed to his father’s wishes to avoid institutionalization, but who nonetheless believes the old man could use a little help around the house. Robot is programmed to act as Frank’s personal chef, housekeeper and professional nudge, making sure that his client eats right, stays active and keeps out of trouble.
It turns out he’s not so good at that last part. Frank quickly discovers that one thing Robot lacks is an ethical chip, making him an ideal companion for an ex-con whose hobbies include petty theft. Long retired from active breaking and entering after two stints in prison, Frank still has a bad shoplifting habit, compulsively stealing soap and knickknacks from the neighborhood store. When Frank discovers that Robot’s hard drive includes a comprehensive database of all applicable local laws -- but no directive to actually obey any of them -- Frank enlists him as a high-tech accomplice. Soon the two are planning to burglarize the home of the wealthy techie (Jeremy Strong) who is overseeing the conversion of the town’s library to digital.
Their victim is the film’s true villain, who’s seen as desecrating one of the last repositories of real memories: the old-fashioned kind that you find in books.
See, despite the plot, “Robot & Frank” isn’t a heist film. Its theme is the impermanence of memory, and it’s subtly articulated by director Jake Schreier, working from a smart script by Christopher D. Ford that grounds its futuristic conceit in the concerns of today.
Frank’s memory is mutable, but so is Robot’s. What Robot “remembers” of the crime that he helps Frank commit, and its potential as criminal evidence that can be lost or saved, is only part of how that theme plays out. Frank’s significant relationships -- his friendship with Robot, his flirtation with a sympathetic librarian (Susan Sarandon) and his fractured connections with his son and daughter (Liv Tyler) -- all figure prominently in the film as things that are not just lived but remembered. “Robot & Frank” contains one of the best twist endings, produced by Frank’s faltering memory, that I’ve seen this year. It isn’t mind-bending, only heartstring-tugging.
Just about the time that Robot starts to grow on his curmudgeonly client, so may this movie -- a sci-fi fantasia that’s surprisingly sweet and old-fashioned -- win over any skeptics.
Contains some obscenity and lawbreaking.,/p>