Imagine a future where cell phones are still around but rarely used — the main form of electronic communication is through a mounted flatscreen TV, similar to those in "Back to the Future Part II." And people are buying robots (life-sized LEGO-looking men with astronaut helmets) to do their laundry, wash their dishes and let them know how to live healthier lives.
Such is the near-future setting of "Robot & Frank."
The story centers on Frank (the illustrious Frank Langella), a man in his 70s suffering from disorientation that's increasing at an alarming rate. Frank has adapted to modern technology and doesn't mind talking to his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) through the television or his son Hunter (James Marsden) on a clear-glassed touch screen cell phone. But his house is an embarrassing mess; he's losing his mind and he needs to be cared for.
Hunter tries to convince Frank to use this new robot everyone seems to love so much. The robot would do all the cleaning, let him know what foods are bad for him and what kind of medicine he needs to take to stay healthy. It's a butler of high intelligence, if you will. However, being a stubborn old man, Frank doesn't want Robot anywhere near him. Frank is old school and wants to take care of himself. He couldn't care less about his messy house and what he eats — he just wants to read and steal.
Oh yes, we almost forgot to tell you — Frank likes to steal. And he steals a lot ... for sport. Stealing is arguably the most important thing in Frank's life. Years ago, he spent time in prison for stealing. It's a vice he can't shake.
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At first, Frank doesn't take kindly to Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). "How the hell do I turn you off?" is the first thing he wants to know. But after a few days of being a jerk to Robot, Frank discovers this friendly machine can pick locks faster than a human ... and a great partnership begins. Robot begins assisting him on his nightly adventures in stealing from the rich — like Robin Hood, Frank doesn't want to steal from the poor; he's just going after his over-privileged neighbors.
Langella is an actor who's always been able to carry a film on his own, most notably in "Frost/Nixon," "Dracula" (1979) and the tragically under-seen independent film, "Starting Out in the Evening." Langella proves that the protagonist doesn't need to be charismatic to be sympathetic — in "Robot & Frank," he's as grumpy as can be, complains every chance he gets and would rather "die eating cheeseburgers than live off steamed cauliflower."
Ultimately, we end up adoring this mean old bastard — especially when we watch him stealing books from the local library before they're destroyed as the place prepares to go all-digital. He's a quiet champion of celebrated authors who worked so hard at getting their work published and distributed in the pre-digital age.
The way director Jake Schreier portrays the future is very satisfying. There are no flying cars, no cloning mumbo jumbo, no holograms and the world hasn't gone completely bonkers. His vision is graceful and underplayed — the biggest changes (that we're aware of) are the upgraded telecommunication systems and, of course, the robots. This subtlety keeps what "Robot & Frank" really is in clear view — an endearing story about an unlikely friendship.
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