Starring: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, Susan Sarandon
Slight but utterly delightful, Jake Schreier's debut feature Robot & Frank is a buddy heist movie that successfully mixes comedy, drama, and just the right amount of sentimentality (well, maybe a bit more sentimentality than it absolutely needs, but more on that later). Anchored by a great performance from Frank Langella (so great that the performance itself is best described as "invisible"), Robot & Frank is a minor gem.
Set in "the near future," Robot & Frank centers on Frank (Langella), a retired cat burglar losing the battle against dementia. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), is unable, due to his own family responsibilities, to give Frank the help and attention he needs and buys him a robot helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to see to the upkeep of the house and to develop a routine which will help Frank stay focused and present in his life. Frank resents the gift at first, insisting that he has no need for a robot babysitter, but comes to accept his help after Robot reveals that if Frank sends him away, he'll be returned to the factory and his memory will be erased. Although Robot insists that he has no feelings about this, Frank himself is greatly affected and allows Robot to reorder his life, replacing the food he likes with healthy food that he hates, and agreeing to start a garden with Robot so that they'll have a "project" (though, it should be noted, that Robot does the actual work while Frank sits in a chair complaining that he hates gardening).
As they get to know each other, Frank learns that not only does Robot have the capacity to be taught the tricks of Frank's former trade, but that he has no sense of morality to get in the way. The discovery comes just in time, as Frank learns that the library where he spends much of his time - mostly flirting with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) - has been bought by Jake (Jeremy Strong), a young man as rich as he is smarmy, and is about to get rid of its books in order to focus more on "the library experience." With Robot's help Frank breaks into the library and steals an antique copy of Don Quixote, intending to give it to Jennifer as a gift, and then thinking better of it, not wanting her to know that he was behind the library heist. He then zeroes in on Jake, deciding to break into his house and lift some of his wife's jewelry. Robot is against this plan, deeming it too high risk (though he enjoys the planning portion of the project), but when Frank manages to convince him that he's neutralized all the risks, they move forward with predictable results (regardless of how good Frank is at it, ex-cat burglar plus string of local cat burglaries is a pretty simple equation to solve). As the authorities close in, Robot encourages Frank to dispose of the greatest piece of evidence that could be used against him - Robot's memory, but knowing how precious memory is, Frank is uncertain of whether he can bring himself to do it.
The beauty of Robot & Frank is in the lightness of its touch. Although this is his first feature film, Schreier has the confidence to know that he doesn't need to force it and can let it flow according to its own natural rhythms. Although the story becomes more direct about it towards the end, it doesn't go out of its way to draw attention to the parallels between Frank's tenuous hold on his own memory and the ease with which Robot's memory could be erased, instead trusting Langella to do the heavy lifting and make the connection felt, rather than seen. Schreier knows what he has in his cast and lets them go to work rather than contorting the film in order to ensure that the audience will "get it."
If Robot & Frank has a structural flaw, it's that it gets a little bit schmaltzy at the end (I would argue that it has another flaw, namely that apparently in the future the police won't require search warrants to search a house and that the victims of crimes are allowed to tag along with the police to oversee their work, however, I'm willing to concede that the only reason those details bothered me was because I spent a few years working for criminal defense attorneys). To their credit, I think that Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford do a good job at not telegraphing the finale's "big reveal" too far in advance, but the film does end a bit more softly than it might have. Still, Robot & Frank is a thoroughly charming and well-made little movie.