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Non-Review Review: Robot & Frank

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Robot & Frank is perhaps best described as a live-action Pixar film, a lost script or concept from that period only a few years ago when it seemed like the studio could do no wrong. The beauty of films like The Incredibles or Toy Story 3 was the way that these fantasies allowed us to engage with incredibly adult issues in a disarmingly wondrous way. Up could deal with the pain of loss in great detail, because it was really the story of a man flying his house to South America, right? Finding Nemo could play out the darkest fears lurking in a parent’s subconscious, because it was really about cute fish, correct?

And so Robot & Frank provides a wonderful vehicle for the exploration of what growing old really means, and how we cope with the challenges that it presents. Because, after all, it’s just a film with a cute-looking robot butler, right?

Frank'll test his metal...

Frank’ll test his metal…

On the surface, Robot & Frank is a delightfully oddball buddy comedy. One is a retired jewel thief who rarely sees his two children. The other is a robot butler assigned to keep Frank in the best of health. Together, they fight commit crime. A lot of the humour and the fun in Robot & Frank stems from the interactions between the grumpy and stubborn old man and the anonymous robot tasked with keeping him safe.

The talent of the actors involved is a large part of the charm. Frank Langella is a fantastic actor who has only recently garnered the respect and attention that he deserves, coming off a wonderful turn in Frost/Nixon. Langella plays Frank as the kind of person who is loveable at a distance – a rogue and rebel with personality to burn, unwilling to compromise. Of course, that’s a double-edged sword, and the film wisely avoids buying into any especially romantic notions about Frank.

Seeing green...

Seeing green…

His children aren’t around a lot, as you might expect in a film like this. However, the film avoids falling into the familiar trap of casting the absentee kids as the bad guys. His daughter, Madison, has a job that takes her around the world. His son, Hunter, lives so far away he can only visit religiously once a week. And when he gets there, Frank is less than engaging or cooperative. While the film is sympathetic to Frank’s desire to remain independent, it also acknowledges that perhaps it isn’t feasible.

That’s where the robot comes in. Voiced by Peter Sarsgaard doing his best Kevin Spacey impersonation, the mechanical helper is purchased by Hunter to help take care of Frank. It is assigned to make sure that his house remains liveable and also to try to offer Frank some quality of life. It throws out his cereal and suggests that he might like to start growing a vegetable patch. That idea goes down about as well as you might expect.

Service with a... whatever that expression it...

Service with a… whatever that expression it…

Robot & Frank has a great deal of fun with this odd-couple pairing. Eventually, as you might imagine, Frank works out a purpose for the robot that is less than moral. Langella and Sarsgaard play well off one another, and there’s something quite tender about their interactions, even when the film is a bit coy about the robot. Are is his responses just programmed, or is there something more human underneath? More than that are we (and Frank) reading our own humanity into the wonderfully retro service unit?

Because the film is so much fun, and because it maintains such a light touch, Christopher D. Ford’s script is free to deal with a whole host of big questions. For all that Frank is an engaging and likeable protagonist, it is very clear (from as early as the opening scene) that he is dealing with some very real and very tangible problems. Growing old is a pretty daunting prospect, and it is quite evident that Frank isn’t going to have an easy time of it.

It'll work out in the end...

It’ll work out in the end…

Robot & Frank handles that particular prospect with a surprisingly delicate touch. It doesn’t over-emphasis the tragedy of the situation, trusting that our affection for Frank will be enough to underscore the more melancholy moments. The result is a film that is neither too heavy nor too light, one that is smartly constructed and meticulously put together.

Particular credit is due to Jake Schreier, who is able to craft a wonderfully low-key vision of the near future, like a more mundane version of the world imagined in fifties and sixties science-fiction. The robots look like throwbacks to that era, but there’s something quite charming and timeless about their blocky designs. Filming them in decidedly natural environments (Frank’s remote home or the forests surrounding it), gives the film a nice vibrant (almost cartoonish) visual aesthetic, playing up the contrast beautifully.

Being Frank with one another...

Being Frank with one another…

Robot & Frank is a sweet and affecting comedy, one exploring some pretty heavy issues, but in a sincere and tactful manner. It’s a gem.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

2 Responses

  1. I have to say I totally agree, it was treated with such delicacy, it trusts it’s audience to feel emotion rather than slapping it in the face like so many films do. I must also add that Susan Sarandon was a great addition to the cast.

    Also now blogging at

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