It appears the Robot Anti-Defamation League has gotten its act together and produced another movie to counter Hollywood’s never-ending supply of Evil Killing Machines Bent on the Annihilation of Humanity. Set in a less-than-dystopian near future, Robot & Frank tells the story of a retired cat burglar (Frank Langella) facing the onset of Alzheimers. His concerned son (James Marsden), unable to visit often, buys him an advanced robot (performed in a convincing suit by Rachael Ma and voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to serve as a nurse/helper. This Robot’s design reflects trends in Japanese robotics favoring friendly, glossy-white nondescription, a la WALL-E‘s sweetheart EVE. He cooks, cleans, and uses every trick in the book to cajole Frank into exercising and staying mentally active.
Robot (that’s the only name he ever gets) suggests that Frank work on starting a garden–a constructive hobby would naturally work wonders for his well-being. Frank shows little interest in this, but his curiosity is piqued when he discovers his synthetic friend can learn virtually any task–including picking locks. You can probably guess where things go from there.
It’s refreshing to see a movie which depicts the relationship between man and machine in a positive, life-affirming light. There’s certainly no harm in examining the potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence, whether they be Terminator-esque apocalypses or more moderately troubling futures like we see in I, Robot or A.I., but that can’t ever be the only possibility we consider. People love smartphones for a reason, as obnoxious as they can be in inconsiderate hands. Given time, I like to think that society can establish the proper etiquette for any new technology. For instance, one might hope that ever fewer people will thoughtlessly be on their phones while at a counter ordering coffee (or… ahem… movie rentals). Robot & Frank ponders these sorts of questions with a deft and light touch, whether it be the fate of physical libraries in the digital world or the limits to how smug the über-hispters of the 21st Century will be allowed to get.
Robot & Frank is a delightful little mash-up of science fiction, social satire, crime movie and buddy comedy. Langella nails the tone from the get-go. I’d love to see him do more sci-fi–between this and Richard Kelly‘s underrated 2009 sleeper The Box, he shows a real comfort and believability with this kind of material. As long as I’m pitching Langella roles, I’ll also throw in a mention of his excellent work in 2007’s Starting Out in the Evening. In fact, you should probably watch every movie I’ve referenced in this review. They’re all good. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 2/12/13