In Robot & Frank, the best movie I have seen this year, Frank (Frank Langella) is an elderly ex-cat burglar tending toward senility and resisting technological advancements in a well-crafted near future. His son Hunter (James Marsden), detached from his father, dumps a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard and motion-acted by Rachel Ma) to stabilize his health and ameliorate his memory. The movie effectively comments on global themes– the denial of aging and the disappointment of relationships.
The protagonist is, on many levels, well cast and authentic. Langella marvelously captures the all too familiar grumpy grandpa personality: reluctant toward change, stubborn and lost in the speed of the modern world. He grudgingly accepts the robot into his life, ignoring the pet-name standard and dubbing him simply “Robot.” The costume designers captured the dichotomy between Frank and the rest of the world by contrasting his clothing with their invented ‘modern’ fashion. His character was written with equal strength, showing social and personal growth through his interactions with librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) and Robot. Frank and Jennifer’s relationship takes an unexpected turn, illuminating long-gone dialogue in an allusion to their past.
Fortunately for Frank, he has in Robot not only an android assistant but a loyal friend. Despite seeming officious, Robot helps Frank to in relive his glory days and experience the thrill on which his kleptomania feasts, effectively bringing him back to cognition and reality. Sarsgaard’s voice acting, along with witty dialogue from screenwriter Christopher D. Ford, gives an oddly human quality to the robot, and Ma contributes believably robotic mannerisms.
Another interesting theme explored by Robot & Frank is morality in the machine. Robot possesses only literal definitions of vice and virtue; he lacks an inherent understanding of their applications and repercussions. He willingly obeys Frank’s every wish, even when it violates basic laws of human interaction. Through Robot, we see what separates us from the machines.
Despite all this, Robot is still beloved by the audience. His trajectory and that of the other characters left me content, with that wonderful mixture of joy and sadness. It put a charming, clever, and compelling twist on the standard buddy movie.