In the ambiguous "near future" of a clever caper called "Robot & Frank," old codgers such as Frank are not scared -- just annoyed -- by the latest technological gadgets, which are only slightly higher-tech than today's. More annoying than the technology are the young technocrats, who are phasing out all obsolete "printed matter" at his local library.
"What's the point of a library if you can't check out books?" asks Frank (Frank Langella).
"It's about the augmented library experience now," librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) patiently explains. "Since you can get any book, any time, any place instantly, it's all about community now."
3.5 stars = Very Good
- Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler.
- Rating: PG-13 for some mild language.
Not for Frank, it isn't. As a semi-retired cat burglar and veteran "second-story man," he's been rather removed from that halcyon community -- Cold Springs, N.Y. -- not least by two hefty prison stretches. Long divorced, he lives alone and is getting more forgetful these days. The place is a mess, his episodes of disorientation increasing, his kids are worried. Daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off working with orphans in Afghanistan. Son Hunter (James Marsden) is tired of commuting a long distance to check on him.
They're halfway planning to put him in a "home" until Hunter gets a brighter idea: a robot-butler, programmed for assisted living, to upgrade Frank's physical and mental health. No big deal. Lots of people have 'em nowadays.
It's Frank's ultimate nightmare: a 24-hour hardware health nut with no on-off switch, who throws away his Cap'n Crunch. "You need a project," says the robot. Frank refuses to garden. "It's time for your enema." Etc.
Gradually, however, Frank's resistance gives way to a canny realization of the robot's uncanny skill set. He trains it to pick locks. Then, how to "case" a joint (the library) and evade security systems. Then, the abstract concept of "sneaking." Followed by the concrete concept of "accomplice" for a late-life crime or two.
So far, so silly-sounding. We've seen a few dozen similarly sit-comic futuristic conceits, before and since "Back to the Future," most of them harmless enough and geared to young audiences. But once the premise is established, first-time director Jake Schreier and first-time screenwriter Christopher D. Ford take their story -- and its characterizations -- into deeper, less predictable waters.
For one thing, Frank must convince the robot that burglary does not necessarily violate its basically moralistic (or at least law-abiding) program, not to mention its computation of success-failure odds before letting Frank commit one. And then there's that late-budding romance between Frank and the librarian, which is complicated by the library-revamping agenda of a sinister young trustee (Jeremy Strong).
The most problematic thing turns out to be the best thing: Robot itself. Other people's robots have cute names (Ms. Sarandon's is called "Mr. Darcy.") Frank's doesn't. It's just "Robot." This Robot -- qua robot! -- is not a bit interesting. It has no flashy techno qualities -- no bells, lights or nifty design features -- and no charmingly anthropomorphic movements. Even its voice (Peter Sarsgaard's) is deceptively derivative -- a cross between Douglas Rain's HAL 9000 in "2001" and Ben Burtt's R2D2 in "Star Wars." It strikes us, initially, as a downright cheesy copy. But that cloying recherche quality gradually acquires a strange credibility as the chemistry -- a real relationship -- develops between Robot and Frank.
None of this would work without the real Frank -- as in, Mr. Langella. From the "Mad Housewife's" husband to Dracula to Nixon to William Paley, he has played, and can play, everything. Here, as the declining dementia victim, his performance is terrific: cranky, crotchety but full of irony and cunning. Look for an Oscar nomination. Ms. Sarandon is fine, as always, but her part is disappointingly small. Mr. Marsden and Ms. Tyler are perfect as the oh-so-straight son and daughter. If there's a scene-stealer, it's Mr. Strong's hilarious turn as the decidedly obnoxious villain.
So, comedy or drama? Geriatric-robotic buddy movie, sentimental fluff or social satire? I'm not sure. But give "Robot & Frank" credit, with its smart plot twists, for at least addressing the A-word Hollywood usually ignores: aging. Frank shoplifts mainly to give himself something to do. He's old, lonely, alienated from his kids and bored. Reengagement with crime revives him. He hasn't felt this good in years!
It's a most unlikely but almost irresistible Alzheimer's allegory. The tender moments resonate. Mr. Langella shines.
Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: firstname.lastname@example.org.