An unlikely odd-couple relationship between man and robot, Robot & Frank poignantly contrasts human memory and ageing with its computerised counterparts.
I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In a near future that looks a lot like now, in an upstate New York shot in clear, cool colours, elderly Frank (Frank Langella) lives a solitary life in a house filled with the untidy accretions of years of family life. He’s physically hale and hearty, hiking into the small town most days to visit the library and banter with its librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). But his memory is failing, though he won’t admit it. His absent son and daughter are concerned enough to check on him remotely via a Skype-type telescreen, but not enough to visit. His daughter (Liv Tyler, in a sidelined role) is doing something worthy in a remote part of the world and his son (James Marsden) is a city lawyer who can’t find the time to drive upstate. That is, until he turns up with a cute white robot in the boot of his car, installing it as his father’s live-in carer.
At first hostile to the idea – “It’ll kill me in the night. It’s a death machine!” – lonely Frank surprises himself by warming to his metal carer – “I’m talking to an appliance!”. Rather prissily, the robot takes over his healthcare, improves his diet, plants vegetables in the garden and is unfailingly friendly, polite and almost human – “If you die, they’ll send me back to the warehouse and wipe my memory”. As therapy for Frank’s episodes of deterioration, the robot recommends a project. But, as was telegraphed earlier in the film, Frank is a retired cat burglar, so the project he comes up with is an unorthodox one. Under new management, his beloved library is replacing all its books – now classed as mere “printed information” – with digital versions – an “augmented experience”. He plans to steal their most valuable book, an edition of Don Quixote, both to safeguard it and impress his friend the librarian, who treasures it. To achieve this crazy scheme, he teaches the robot to pick locks and burgle. Not programmed to recognise crime, the robot is an apt accomplice and cheerfully becomes sidekick helpmate Sancho Panza to Frank’s self-deluding Don Quixote.
Fired by their success, and unaware he is mentally deteriorating, Frank plans a more ambitious heist – stealing jewellery from the home of his tormentor, the almost robotically programmed new director of the library. The relationship between Frank and the robot deepens as if it was a real human relationship. He starts to confuse it with his son: actually, it’s a better pupil and partner in crime than he ever was. But he is also corrupting the ‘innocent’ robot as he draws it deeper into crime – “Planning this burglary was a great idea, Frank” – and it discovers the ability to lie for him. It’s the way this relationship develops that makes Robot & Frank so touching. Frank Langella is a mixture of irascibility, charm, reluctant warmth and slowly revealed cunning and canniness despite what is clearly a subtext of the onset of Alzheimer’s. The robot is played by petite dancer Rachael Ma, who moves her carapace elegantly, making subtle movements that we can interpret as human emotions. It’s voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, catching perfectly a tone of voice that is both neutral yet expressive, reminiscent of Kevin Spacey in Moon.
Suspicion immediately falls on Frank but the only concrete evidence against him is stored inside the robot’s memory. They go on the run together and he calls on his son, well trained for such eventualities, to create a diversion to get the police off the scent. But eventually a wrenchingly tender moment comes when Frank has to decide whether or not to save himself from arrest and prison by turning the robot off, which will wipe its memory. “I’m not a real person, Frank,” the robot self-sacrificingly reminds him to encourage him to do so, but by this stage the robot been so anthropomorphised that it’s hard to believe that’s true.
Cut to a gloomy, sterile old people’s home, where a miserable Frank, now an inmate, appears like the robot to have finally lost his memory too. But when he surreptitiously passes a note to his son telling him where the jewellery is hidden – buried under the tomatoes the robot planted – apparently, he hasn’t. Allowing himself to be incarcerated in this way may have been his final act of self-sacrifice, either to save his own skin or for the sake of his family. It’s a family which we now see includes Jennifer the librarian, his ex-wife, whose photo we saw Frank searching for when the film opened, and who, because of his Alzheimer’s, he doesn’t remember he once was married to, but clearly still felt some unrecognised connection with.
The final sections of the film seem a little muddled, as does the set-up of Frank as a retired burglar, and the final reveal seems a little over the top retrospectively considering Sarandon’s playing of her role throughout the film, but it doesn’t really matter. Director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D Ford were friends at film school and this is their first major project together. It’s a lot of fun – frothy on top but with a lot more going on underneath. Alzheimer’s is a pressing contemporary theme we are seeing more and more of in movies and, even though the storyline is mainly comic, the film treats it sensitively. Over the credits, there’s film of all the different things humanoid robots are already doing today – such as in Japan, where they truly are carers for old people. The future is now.
Robot & Frank is released on 8th March 2013 in the UK