Despite Drawbacks, ‘Robot & Frank’ Provides Fun

By Maggie Scott

Actors know, or should know, about the traditional warning of the hazards of working with babies and cute animals on screen.  But, the scene-stealing drawbacks are weighed by smart actors against the big box-office payoff potential of an audience-pleasing partnership.

While puppies and toddlers remain can’t-miss mainstays of the occasional hoped-for chart-topping movie, a new star has challenged their dominance: the robot.  Specifically, the family-friendly robot, with a high cuddle factor.  One such non-threatening artificial intelligence entity (or, “appliance,” as model VGC 60L is referred to) saves the new low-budget dramedy, Robot & Frank.

A 2012 Sundance Film Festival crowd-pleaser, this mostly meandering muddle from writer Christopher D. Ford and rookie director Jake Schreier wants to mix a bit of I Robot with a bit of Don Quixote and a bit of To Catch a Thief with any recent film dealing with the enormous and enormously painful issue of debilitating dementia in the elderly.

Robot & Frank is also a bit of a mystery, both intentional and un-, as we are introduced to the character of Frank (Frank Langella) in Cold Spring, New York, in the “near future.”  At first, he appears to be like many seniors hanging on as best they can in homes left more quiet and less clean years after the departure of spouse and kids.

Whether by choice or by court order and the children taking the car keys, Frank walks to town, looking for a favorite eating place that doesn’t exist anymore and for more books from the town’s old library.

“Old timer” Frank is a worry to son Hunter (James Marsden) and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who disagree on the best way to help him; and a pitiable “connection with the past” for Jake (Jeremy Strong), a young man with conversion plans for the library who’s crassly immune to what he considers the obsolete and embarrassingly nostalgic appeal of printed and bound paper pages.

To Jennifer, the warm librarian (Susan Sarandon), Frank is a charmer deserving of a kind word and dignified treatment. She’s adept at gentle re-direction of Frank, when needed.  Less subtle is Hunter, who thinks he’s found the perfect answer to the exasperated question of the owner of a small store in which Frank has been shoplifting: “Who’s responsible for you!?”

Hunter introduces VGC 60L (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) to Frank as his father’s personal butler and healthcare aide; programmed to bring order, routine, exercise and nutritious, home-cooked meals back to the confused life of the less-than-thrilled Frank: “That thing will murder me in my sleep.”

But, soon, after weeks of bugging Frank about veggies, hiking and colon cleanses, VGC 60L’s compliant circuits inspire Frank to pick up his old hobby—burglary—when the robot proves as adept at picking locks as baking a cake.

Frank’s sticky-fingered plans are not of the vicious or self-enriching kind.  He just wants to mess with Jake and save a rare book from being disposed of.

Suffering from a scatter-shot treatment of several ideas, a couple of which are certainly well-meaning and deserving of solid development, Ford’s story never quite gels enough to make meaningful points about such things as:  family relations, the treatment of cognitively-impaired seniors, the displacement of humans in the work force by robots and the inexorable replacement of one technology by another.

Schreier’s novice directorial abilities are painfully evident, with too many unimaginative and annoyingly framed scenes.  While the laughs come easy with Frank’s cranky moods and bickering with his metal caretaker, this viewer struggled to feel much at all discovering the ultimate robbery of Frank’s memories of the past and comprehension of the future.  A Samuel Goldwyn Film, rated PG-13 for language.


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