It’s a challenge when filmmakers choose to work in blended genres, especially when they tell the story of an aging person facing a heartbreaking kind of medical condition. The risk is that the whole project will end up smacking of convenience. Or insensitivity. Or worse.
Say, for example, the story involves an elderly man living alone. Add the obligatory push-pull of family dynamics. Blend in a bit of cultural commentary, in the sense of dueling generations and respective reactions toward evolving technologies. Toss in a crime subplot, even some light sci-fi references, then wrap the whole script in an ongoing conceit centering on a man and his failing memory. What you end up with is “Robot & Frank.”
But if such a conjoined project is aesthetically risky, let me just say that “Robot & Frank” is a film that strikes a tone of light charm so well that, in this case buoyed by a sensitive lead performance by Frank Langella, it washes away any complaints I might have had about the overt convenience of its main plot.
Frank (played by the 74-year-old Langella) lives by himself in an isolated rural house. While filmed in Cold Spring, New York, which sits 90 minutes north of Manhattan by train, the film could have been shot anywhere. It’s enough to know that Frank eats cereal for breakfast. He talks to his globe-trotting daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), by video-phone and takes weekly visits from his resentful son, Hunter (James Marsden). In between, he spends much of his time walking the mostly deserted roads to and from the local village where he either attempts to shoplift soap from a sundry store or check out what few books remain in the town library – and, in the process, flirt with the librarian (Susan Sarandon).
Then Frank’s life changes. Hunter, uncomfortable playing nurse-maid, brings his dad a robot. A home-health-care robot. Frank, understandably angry that anyone thinks he needs to be taken care of, refuses to deal with the machine – especially when it wants him to get up at 7 a.m., develop a regular schedule and even begin work on a garden.
But as time passes, Frank sees the robot’s good sides. Voiced by the actor Peter Sarsgaard, the robot ends up having almost as much personality as Disney’s “WALL-E.” Besides being capable of whipping up a mean lasagna, the robot is handy in other ways, too, which convinces Frank he can return to his original career: that of cat burglar. His first target: the town library.
From here, “Robot & Frank” could have gone anywhere. A typical Hollywood film, for example, would have opted for farce. But first-time screenwriter Christopher D. Ford makes the smart choice: He sticks with Frank and his slowly failing mind and he ends up creating a film that both answers all the questions concerning Frank’s past and reveals the issues that have kept that past and Frank’s present in perpetual conflict.
Yeah, “Robot & Frank” may be too pat. Real life is certainly more messy than screenwriter Ford and first-time director Jake Schreirer manage to portray. But sometimes it’s nice to settle for a bit of fantasy. Sometimes, when the personal stakes are high enough, it’s even necessary.