At first, Frank (Frank Langella) just seems a bit doddering. He putters around his unkempt house, he accidentally puts spoiled milk on his cereal, and he’s crotchety in the face of a visit from his worried, exasperated son Hunter (James Marsden). When his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) calls to check up on him, he seems a little disoriented, but covers it up. Hunter finally puts the audience’s suspicions into words: Frank is having trouble with his memory.
Robot & Frank never puts a name on Frank’s condition; it could be Alzheimer’s in its early stages, or the beginning of dementia. The timeframe remains vague, too. Because the movie takes place in the “near future,” there is no science-fiction cure for Frank, but he does have access to a science-fiction stop-gap, namely, a boxy white automaton with a helmet-like head who speaks with the soothing if slightly creepy voice of Peter Sarsgaard.
At first, Frank resists the robot, not admitting that he needs any day-to-day help around the house. He’s clearly incorrect, but Robot & Frank treats Frank’s mental problems cleverly, allowing that his memory is fading and failing (in his confusion, he asks 30something Hunter about life at college), but never quite clarifying how much Frank remembers at any given time.
Throughout the film, Frank keeps returning to the site of his favorite restaurant, Harry’s, which has long since closed. He seems to be covering up his surprise when he finds a specialty soap store in its place, yet the surprise may be a ritual of its own: repeatedly, Frank enters the store, pretends to browse, and shoplifts tiny soaps shaped like animals. It’s possible that Frank uses shoplifting to punish the store for his own memory lapses. But the behavior also recalls his pre-retirement life as a thief, and his practiced craftiness (played well by Langella) complicates what we assume are his erratic mental faculties.
When the robot accompanies Frank to the store and assists him in his shoplifting, he decides to give serious thievery another try. As with the soap shoplifting, Frank doesn’t steal for material gain: his first target is a rare first-edition book that he wants to give to Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the local librarian he visits with quiet romantic devotion.
This may sound like a lot of set-up for a movie that wants also to be a buddy caper, of sorts, about a man and a robot pulling off daring heists. But the movie is at its best when it develops Frank’s relationships, particularly the way he comes to regard the unnamed robot as a partner, even a friend, as well as the way the robot simulates that friendship.
The robberies that occasion their friendship, however, feel anticlimactic, even allowing for the slower speeds of an elderly man and his robot companion. The movie’s low-budget science fiction concepts, as it turns out, are easier to buy into than its ideas about how stealing and police investigating work: when Frank is suspected of a theft, the local cops conduct warrantless searches and long stakeouts, mostly at the behest of a victim who is implausibly allowed to treat the police as his private security force.
That victim is Jake (Jeremy Strong), a rich, young consultant who has plans to revamp Jennifer’s library for the modern world. In other words, he’s a two-dimensional nemesis that the screenplay pointedly, and somewhat stupidly, renders less human or likable than the unfeeling robot. The unsubtle characterization of Jake’s condescension to Frank—calling him “old timer” and expressing wonder that he still favors printed books—makes the movie itself feel tetchy and out of touch, using a clichéd straw-man to generate sympathy for its hero.
Director Jake Schreier calls for a similarly broad performance from Tyler as the hippie-ish Madison, who registers her displeasure with the robot visitor and attempts to keep house the old-fashioned way, stymieing some of Frank’s heist plans. With these supporting characters, the movie threatens to undermine the sometimes inscrutable human (or human-like) behavior it so carefully observes in its title characters. Idea-based science fiction doesn’t need otherworldly budgets, and Robot & Frank seems to understand this. But despite some moments of surprising emotional impact, as we realize the depth of Frank’s condition, the movie is too often mechanical.