Lately, it feels as though Hollywood has hit a lull with respect to creativity. The result is an onslaught of remakes and recycled ideas that become beaten to death and rarely appealing the second or even third time around. Perhaps time is all that these writers need to work out the kinks and deliver a stunningly original script? Just ask Christopher D. Ford, writer of the 2012 Sundance hit Robot & Frank. Ford, along with first time director Jake Schreier, initially imagined the idea for Robot & Frank while attending film school at NYU in 2002. A decade later and the duo's touch of creativity has been brought to the big screen, just in time to remind us all that there's still some clever ideas floating around Hollywood.
Set in what's described solely as "the near future" we're introduced to Frank (played by Langella), a divorced and elderly man living alone in Cold Springs, New York. After a lengthy stretch of displaying signs of dementia, Frank's son Hunter (played by James Marsden) shows up at his home with a robot butler. The robot is intended to improve Frank's physical and mental well being, but Frank comes up with a better idea. The retired cat-burglar manipulates the robot into helping him pull off a few heists, which is all well and good until local law enforcement begins to catch on.
Robot & Frank is a spectacular film that tackles its science fiction themes with an enormous amount of humanity. As the Alfred P. Sloan winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival (which recognizes the festival's best independent film with a sci-fi backdrop), director Jake Schreier gives an award-winning debut with the aid of his scribe Christopher D. Ford and his leading actor Frank Langella. Langella proves to be the glue that keeps everything so closely connected. Deserving of some serious awards season buzz, Langella delivers a masterful performance. When we're first introduced to the main character Frank, we quickly see his lapses in memory. This clever approach by the writers helps to form a strong sense of sorrow for Frank, who then starts to demonstrate some terrible qualities as well. This is where the real genius of Langella's work becomes evident. The gifted actor brings to life an immensely flawed being who treats his children poorly and has been incarcerated for theft. However, Langella's brilliant work somehow forces the audience to forget about the negatives and focus only on the charming aspects of his character. There may be no greater feat in acting than humanizing a "bad" person, and Langella does so effortlessly. Frank becomes such an endearing character that, as an audience, we root for the success of his heists. Robot & Frank is the delightful and lovable kind of film that's easy for anyone to enjoy.
Although Langella is magnificent and the story is both fun and engaging, there's a few noticeable disconnects with Robot & Frank. Upon its conclusion, you may find yourself questioning the purpose of the film. It's a fair inquiry that may not seem so obvious at first, but I took away a few messages from the feature. First, there's a major underlying theme revolving around our world's growing dependence on technology. By describing the movie's setting as "the near future", we're introduced to a world much like our own with very few differences. The one major contrast being the use of robots as a staple in every day life. Throughout the film we see the diminishing need for libraries because technological advancements create no purpose for things like books, compact discs, and DVD's. It's a startling realization that quickly becomes believable thanks to the film. Another, more meaningful, theme revolves around Frank's struggle to accept his mental illness. We constantly see and hear the lead character disregard any notion of his mental instability, often with the phrase "I'm fine". This is where the robot's connection with Frank helps ease the unwelcoming reality for the main character. Yet, while the picture works its way through a heartfelt resolution, it becomes difficult to accept certain areas of the conclusion. Given Frank's described history and on screen actions, many aspects of the ending seem unrealistic. There's a handful of plot holes and head-scratchers with Robot & Frank, however, the whole experience is far greater than the tiny miscues that manage to detract from the film.
Robot & Frank is an indie diamond in the rough that will, unfortunately, go unseen by many. The movie packs a lot of heart and a lot of fun into a mere 90 minutes of screen time. Sure to hit a wide span of cities all over the country this month, I highly recommend taking a chance on Robot & Frank. You'll be happy that you did.