||Frank Langella gives a tour de force performance as an elderly man revivified by a mechanical companion in “Robot and Frank,” a narratively slender but highly enjoyable piece of futuristic whimsy that also speaks to the difficulty of growing old. It’s like one of the lighter episodes of the old “Twilight Zone” series, and might feel insufferably padded if the star, who appears in virtually every scene, weren’t able to invest every moment with a charming mixture of poignancy and gruff humor.
Langella plays Frank, a crusty septuagenarian living alone in a ramshackle house on rustic New York in what’s called “the near future.” He doesn’t bother keeping the place clean, and seems to have only one outlet: walking to the town library to pick up some books and visit with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), a kindred spirit he’s obviously sweet on. But Frank’s memory is failing, and his son Hunter (James Marsden) decides to give him a robot aide (voiced wittily by Peter Sarsgaard) as cook, butler and general factotum, even though Frank’s globetrotting daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who keeps in touch by videophone, opposes the newfangled addition to the family on vaguely humanitarian grounds.
Frank’s not crazy about having a companion that will insure he eat more healthily and do some modest exercise either, and responds by teaching the robot to do something other than plant vegetables and dust. It just so happens that the old fellow was, in his prime, a notorious thief—a self-styled “second-story man” who specialized in intricately-planned, big-profit heists. So he begins teaching the robot to pick locks, and it proves an excellent student.
That gives Frank an idea—to get back into his old line of work. And he has a target in mind: Jake (Jeremy Strong), the smug yuppie who’s remodeling Jennifer’s beloved library, ridding it of print volumes and digitizing everything. He’s even shunted her into the back office, replacing her at the desk with a robot. Jake lives just down the road and his wife has a splendid collection of jewelry that will make a most attractive haul.
The plan has two major problems, however. One is in convincing the robot to go along—and the automaton, with its insistence on calculating the chances of success down to the smallest detail. The other is the arrival of Madison, who insists on turning the robot off and taking care of Frank herself just as the job is supposed to occur. Happily both obstacles are overcome—the daughter’s intervention in a particularly amusing way—but though the burglary comes off, it brings unwanted scrutiny in the person of a suspicious cop (Jeremy Sisto). And almost inevitably the ending is a bittersweet one, with a character choosing to make a great sacrifice.
The first reel of “Robot and Frank” is almost entirely a showcase for Langella as the crotchety, manipulative codger who sometimes uses his forgetfulness as a means of irritating people but also suffers from real lapses of memory. With the arrival of the robot, which he never names, the picture turns into a cheeky riff on “The Odd Couple,” with Langella a deliciously grouchy Oscar to Sarsgaard’s fastidious Felix. And as the plot moves into break-in mode, it becomes a warmhearted partnership tale, with Frank mentally revived by the task of planning and executing a perfect crime and the robot fulfilling its function by abetting him. The final reel shows how deep their relationship has grown, and one actually mourns the possibility that this peculiar marriage might come to a forcible end and Frank returned to isolation, or worse.
Christopher D. Ford’s script lays out the story with considerable wit, and Jake Schreier paces it admirably, giving Langella ample room to fill the screen with expressions ranging from exhausted muddle-headedness and sarcastic contempt to snide smugness and impish glee. The supporting cast is a rich one, too, with Marsden and Tyler acing the figures of the concerned children who have issues of their own and Sarandon bringing her natural radiance to the librarian who turns out to be someone special. And one shouldn’t overlook Sarsgaard, who makes this robot as personable as HAL-9000 wasn’t. The film is nicely produced, with Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography expert in both inside and outdoor scenes and Jacob Craycroft’s editing admirably aiding Scheier’s deliberate approach. The background score by Francis and the Lights also suits the mood.
“Robot and Frank” may be somewhat slight in purely narrative terms, but it has a generous and humane spirit and draws real emotional impact from a most unlikely friendship. And it gives Langella, in the twilight of his career, another juicy role, which the actor obviously relishes.