“He’s my friend,” Frank Langella says of his robot partner in crime in the new comedy drama ROBOT & FRANK. It’s a simple line, but when quietly spoken by the grand actor, it’s utterly believable, and even a little moving.
Also soft-spoken and convincing is the robot, which looks like it was manufactured by the same company that created EVE from WALL-E, that is, before they could outfit them to fly. This relationship largely works because of the inspired choice of Peter Sarsgaard to voice the never-named robot.
Set in the near future, and mostly taking place in a rickety old house in upstate New York, this film’s premise is cute, even a bit flimsy, but its likability factor is high.
Langella, playing the kind of crusty cranky character he could play in his sleep, is a retired jewel thief, whose son (James Marsden) gives him the robot, and when Frank finds out that his new helper wasn’t programmed to obey the law (and can pick locks in record time), he’s back in the robbery game.
Langella has eyes for the local librarian (a fine but flightier than usual Susan Sarandon), who is dealing with the re-structuring, or re-imaging of her workplace into some kind of new-fangled interactive “library experience” by a group of snobby young rich hipsters headed by Jeremy Strong.
Strong is the target of Frank’s latest sting, but conflict arrives in the form of Liv Tyler as Frank’s hippy daughter who is a part of the anti-robot “human movement.” Although the film’s tagline is “Friendship doesn’t have an off switch,” Tyler has a password that de-activates the robot, and this makes for one of the weakest and least thought out sequences in the film. Frank never thinks to call Marsden for the password, and the way the situation is resolved is really lazy writing.
That doesn’t ruin the film though, not even the shoe-horned in detective character (Jeremy Sisto) on the trail can do that, as the charming camaraderie between Frank and his robot make this a breezily enjoyable 89 minutes at the movies.
Director Schreier, who was the keyboardist for the indie band Francis and the Lights who provide the film’s soundtrack, shuffles pleasantly through the screenplay by Christopher D. Ford, and it’s a promising full-length film debut for both of them.
Even in such a light movie, Langella is a heavy presence. ROBOT & FRANK is capable enough to both capture his poignant power and hold our attention.