'Robot and Frank' takes a nuanced look at the perils of old age

Samuel Goldwyn Films

By Aditi Mishra, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 10, 2012

The term “old age” elicits a variety of emotional responses in those of us who aren’t quite there yet, fear probably the most universally prominent. And in an honest and loveable representation of the perils of age, “Robot and Frank” shows us why.

Robot and Frank


At the Michigan
Samuel Goldwyn Films


Based in the near future, in which vehicles smaller than Smart cars roam the streets and political debates shift from human slavery to robot slavery, “Robot and Frank” tells the story of an elderly man, Frank (Frank Langella, “Unknown”), who’s barely coping with the timeless nature of loneliness and age. Frank leads a life devoid of the technological advancements of his time, choosing to embrace books instead of tablets and refusing to use robots for household help. In a predictable state of affairs, he’s losing his memory, his children are too far away to visit often and he has no hobbies to keep his mind occupied.

But unlike today, the future seems to have a cure for his all-too-familiar predicament. Frank’s son, Hunter (James Marsden, “30 Rock”), buys him a robot “butler” (voiced, impeccably, by Peter Sarsgaard, “Green Lantern”) to help with household tasks and keep Frank in good health. Barring initial aversion to this technological intruder, Frank develops an inevitable friendship with the newest occupant of his house — a friendship that grows deeper and more human as Frank rediscovers his passions and once again finds purpose in his life.

There’s something to be said about first-time director-writer pair Jake Schreier and Christopher D. Ford’s decision to base this film in the future. Frank’s avid dislike of technology only adds humor and depth to the development of his friendship with Robot. These distinctly different species soon find common ground in Frank’s rediscovery of old habits — as an ex-thief, he challenges himself to overcome the technological advances in security systems with the help of his own technology, Robot.

But Schreier’s genius plan isn’t to evoke humor from a strange relationship or joy from a man’s rediscovery of himself, though it unequivocally does. Its aim is to use this unusual companionship to elicit the most humane fears of old age. He combats Frank’s loneliness with a program designed to do anything it takes to keep Frank healthy, even if that entails thievery. But the film never fails to remind the audience that it’s not the robot, but the mere presence of company that gives Frank the confidence to be himself: In his case, that entails asking out the librarian (Susan Sarandon, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and engaging in a heated books-vs-technology squabble with the narcissistic library owner (Jeremy Strong, “The Romantics”).

For a low-budget independent film, “Robot and Frank” has an enviable cast at its disposal. Langella, as Frank, is masterful and poignant in his character’s progression from lost to found. Marsden and Liv Tyler (“The Ledge”) as Frank’s children are almost always on par with the powerhouse who plays their father. And Sarandon, while having a role too short to display her talents, gives every scene an impressive boost of dry humor and undisguised humility.

A bit slow to start, the film delves too long into Frank’s fading memory and inability to care for himself. But when it gets down to business, “Robot and Frank” shows a captivating flare for capturing Frank’s changing attitude, while subtly hinting at the imminent end of an unsustainable relationship between a human and robot that, nonetheless, drives Frank closer to his family.

With potency and casual grace, this film shows that self-discovery toward the end of one’s life isn’t simply about the self, but about the people and relationships — human or technological in nature — that form the roots of one’s identity.