Film review: Robot & Frank (12A)

Frank, played by Frank Langella and Robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. Picture: complimentary
Frank, played by Frank Langella and Robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. Picture: complimentary
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THE title sounds like a 1980s detective series, possibly patterned after David Hasselhoff and his talking car in Knight Rider, but Robot & Frank plugs into a more grown-up story blending science-fiction with an old-fashioned character study of unexpected sweetness.

Robot & Frank (12A)

Director: Jake Schreier

Running time: 89 minutes

Rating: * * * *

Frank Langella gives another of his glinting performances as Frank, a retired divorcee whose two grown children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) keep tabs on him by videophone and the occasional drop-in visit. The time is a little further in the future, but Frank is having problems with his present and a failing memory which blurs his recall of his favourite haunts, his ex-wife and the last time he bought fresh milk.

Given the choice between losing his independence in an old folks home or submitting to live-in care, Frank grudgingly accepts his son’s gift of a robot butler to whip up healthy meals, tidy up, monitor his lifestyle and manage his medication. The robot also has a certain strategic cunning in its circuitry, which is the first thing to intrigue Frank, although no amount of programming can make “it’s time for your enema” sound like a post-prandial treat.

After a short period of resisting his bossy android carer (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), Frank gets a new lease of life and becomes more engaged socially. In particular, he likes the friendly librarian (Susan Sarandon) at the local library. In this digital age, a building full of books is more of an archaic curiosity than a going concern, but there’s some talk of its prized possession: a valuable edition of Don Quixote which provides both subtext and bait.

Only Sancho Panza’s donkey could miss the parallel between Cervantes and this memory-challenged old luddite and his faithful talking computer. The bait aspect is the film’s main narrative thrust. Frank is a retired jewel thief, whose surreptitious pocketing of scented soap at the start of the film indicates that old habits and urges die hard.

When the robot pockets soap for him, Frank discovers that the robot has no higher directive than maintaining Frank’s good health. It also has all the nuts and bolts necessary to crack locks and safes. Since the robot has no morality chip installed, it can only see the positives in helping Frank with heists, since planning the burglaries keeps him occupied and interested.

Inevitably it’s Langella who steals the show, but everyone here is pretty good, with Liv Tyler well cast as a hippy daughter who acts like a recently woken dormouse, while Sarsgaard delicately poses the suggestion that there may be the ghost of a soul in the machine. Jake Schreier’s first feature is a slight story – it’s maybe something that could have turned up in an episode of the Twilight Zone – but it’s also tender and rather charming.

Selected release from Friday