Frank (Frank Langella) is a relic. He lives alone, he spends his days in routine, coasting through his twilight years doing little more than simply existing. He’s uncomfortable with the way the world is changing around him, and that’s made worse by the fact that his memory is beginning to go. With no hobbies and nothing to inspire his passion, he passes the time by flirting with the town librarian and shoplifting. You see, Frank used to be a second-story man, a lifelong thief who specialized in stealing the stuff nobody believed could be stolen. The shoplifting may be a poor substitute for the thrill of a big heist, but it’s all he’s got. Until his concerned son brings home a robot.
His son, Hunter (James Marsden) is rightly worried about Frank’s slovenly house and his father’s slipping memory. At first, Frank doesn’t want anything to do with the droid, but Hunter insists, leveraging a threat to take his father to a nursing home if he won’t keep the robot. Just think of it as a butler, says Hunter. Fine, says Frank. And so, for a little while, Frank begins a war of attrition against the ‘bot, refusing to cooperate with the robot’s attempts to keep Frank healthy and intellectually stimulated. That all changes after a trip into town during which the robot accidentally shoplifts something for Frank (long story). Confused about how this happened, Frank soon learns that while the robot is programmed with many directives, it doesn’t have any stipulations about not breaking the law. Suddenly the unwanted intruder in Frank’s house instead becomes the perfect partner in crime.
Most of Robot & Frank centers on the odd-couple pairing of Frank and the perpetually unnamed robot. The droid initially goes along with the crimes because breaking the law really does seem to reinvigorate Frank. But while Frank initially views the robot as just another tool to get the job done, like a lockpick or a glass cutter, he soon finds himself becoming fond of his artificial assistant. And the robot proves surprisingly adept at manipulating Frank when it needs to, at one point telling Frank that if it fails to help improve Frank’s health, it will have failed and is worried it will be shipped back to the factory to have its memory erased. While it’s left to us whether this was an outright lie or if there really is more to the ‘bot than ones and zeroes, it’s a prospect that hits home with Frank, who is all too aware of what it’s like to lose your memory.
That interchange is just one of several ways the script by Christopher D. Ford and the direction of Jake Schreier weave in the themes of memory loss and the fears of becoming old and outdated. Before he meets the robot, one of Frank’s favorite activities is walking into town to visit the library, check out a few books, and swap a little flirty banter with the pretty librarian. But he soon learns that the library is being converted into a sort of high-tech social center, with all the books being scanned and then recycled. The film never beats you over the head with it, but it’s full of little resonant touches like that, with Frank’s fears of becoming obsolete echoed in both the shape the story takes and in the direction of Frank and the robot’s miniature crime spree.
Robot & Frank is the sort of movie I wish we saw more of: it uses a few science fiction elements to tell a story that’s about people rather than explosions and bombast. To borrow a phrase from Blade Runner, it’s a touching look at a man struggling with “accelerated decrepitude,” and who finds himself rescued from self-imposed oblivion thanks to a friendship he never would have expected. If Robot & Frank is playing in your area, check it out. I guarantee it’s more fun than all the usual, predictable summer fare clogging the theaters.