In a world where drivers take instruction from tiny boxes on their dashboards, where computers facilitate socializing more than face-to-face contact, and where celebrities from Zooey Deschanel to Martin Scorcese encourage us to treat our phones as friends, the line between man and machine is increasingly blurred. Robot & Frank, opening Friday, is a beautifully constructed dramedy that explores this theme: As technology more closely mimics the traits of real people, are we fools for believing in their "humanness"?
Set in woodsy Cold Spring, New York, in the "near future," the film's main character is Frank (Frank Langella), an aging former cat burglar and an ornery father of two adult children. He lives in a dirty and disheveled country home, matching the disheveled last years of his life. His old-man mind gets snagged on certain memories: he asks to go to Harry's, his favorite restaurant, which closed 30 years ago, and he still thinks his son Hunter (James Marsden), now a successful professional and a father of two, is enrolled in undergrad at Princeton. He also frequently engages in petty acts of shoplifting.(Cat- and dog-shaped bath soaps are his favorite targets.)
To alleviate the heavy burden Frank's increasing instability places on the family, Hunter brings his father his very own helper robot, an eggshell-white model that looks like a five-foot astronaut from Legoland. At first, Frank is alternately confused and furious about the imposition.
"What are you?" Frank asks the robot.
"I'm a robot," answers the 'bot, whom Frank refuses to name.
"Oh yeah. How are you?" replies Frank.
"Today we are going to start a garden."
"Fuck this shit!"
Frank begrudgingly puts up with the robot's nannying, adhering to the routine and vegan diet it imposes, until he discovers a fluke in the robot's programming: a lack of concern for the law and a malleable code of ethics. Frank learns to exploit his new partner in crime, renewing his zest for life in the process. But something else begins to happen, too. As he socializes with the machine - talks to it, listens to it, and comes to trust and depend on it - he develops feelings for it one would normally reserve for the living.
Supporting characters like Frank's kids Hunter and Madison (Liv Tyler), Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the object of Frank's senile affections, and Jake (Jeremy Strong), a patronizing rich hipster, add depth to this "man meets machine" story. But this film's most outstanding roles are the ones in its title. The robot is, impressively, is not a machine at all; it's performer Rachael Ma wearing a robot suit, voiced by actor Peter Sarsgaard. Langella, as the stubborn old man with deteriorating mental capabilities, is in denial about his decline, defending his autonomy one minute and gulit-tripping his daughter about not taking care of him the next. Langella brilliantly balances the tension between Frank's ruthlessness and kindness, helplessness and capability, without overplaying the "cute and crazy old man" schtick.
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With the help of his robot, Frank becomes obsessed with reviving his glamorous days as a high-stakes criminal, and the film's deeper explorations -whether it's wrong to love machines that mimic man, and how much of a person disappears when his memories do - are almost derailed. But these questions are thankfully brought back to the fore when Frank is forced to make a decision about his robot's fate, and in a jarring and tragic flicker of realization about his past with Jennifer toward the film's end.
It's easy to get lost in this gentle and honest story, and that's okay. But when the lights come up, just make sure to discuss it with your date, not your car's GPS system.