WASHINGTON — Some films are worth watching strictly for the lead performance, yet after you’ve seen them once, there’s little incentive to see them again. Frankly, I felt that way about “Robot & Frank,” a bittersweet “dramedy” that tiptoes up to the line of indie greatness, but settles way too easily.
Academy Award nominee Frank Langella (“Frost-Nixon”) carries the film as Frank, an ex-jewel thief with Alzheimer’s who lives alone in upstate New York. His condition is deteriorating to the point that the film opens with him breaking into his own house. One day, his son Hunter (James Marsden) gives him a robot butler programmed to look after him.
Frank is at first resistant to the AI caretaker, but soon finds it could come in handy with his old heist hobby. Robot becomes his partner in crime and his only friend, save for the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), whose job it is to modernize the local library at the request of a slimy tech tycoon, Jake (Jeremy Strong). Things are further complicated by Frank’s worldly daughter (Liv Tyler), who is politically opposed to robot labor.
The robot premise has been done before and can go one of several ways. It can become ridiculous and detract from the movie, as it did in “Rocky IV” (1985). It can provide adorable comic relief, like R2D2 in “Star Wars” (1977) or Johnny Five in “Short Circuit” (1986). Or it can come alive as a full-blown main character, as in Pixar’s animated masterpiece “WALL-E” (2008).
In “Robot & Frank,” the filmmakers walk the line of sci-fi whimsy pretty well, backing the robot with other technology that seems plausible for the “near future,” including ultra-compact cars, transparent smartphones and video chat that’s still shaky across continents. Such treatment of future technology earned the film a Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It also provided a unique challenge for actor Peter Sarsgaard (“Shattered Glass”), who voices the bot with the cadence of HAL 9000 and the tone of Kevin Spacey.
The enchanting robot character is brought to life by a pair of “Enchanted” co-stars, Sarandon and Marsden, who treat the bot with the respect required for us to buy into the gimmick. It should be no surprise that Sarandon delivers, while Marsden proves he has more range than just a pretty face.
The weakest performance comes from Strong. I didn’t “love to hate” his character; I just hated it. He wasn’t frustrating, like all good villains should be; he was annoying and his make-out embrace with his lover was laughably over-the-top. I’ll reserve judgement until I see his performance in Spielberg’s biopic “Lincoln” (2012), which I’m looking forward to more than any other movie this fall.
For me, the jury is also still out on Liv Tyler. She’s been in several successful movies, both at the box office (“Armageddon”) and at the Oscars (“Lord of the Rings”), but I’ve often thought her performances can appear as lifeless as a robot. There’s a scene where Langella confronts Tyler about her using the robot behind his back. As she breaks down and hugs him in the kitchen, it was hard not to laugh. Perhaps it’s just a taste thing.
Thankfully, Langella is in another league, lending believability to those lost eyes, an incompatible grumpiness toward newfangled technology, and a desperate longing for his estranged family (further layered by a plot twist). Frank’s struggle with Alzheimer’s is heartbreaking, especially for viewers who have known the disease first-hand. The theme of memory is powerful, with Frank unwilling to wipe the Robot’s memory clean, because he fears the same thing for himself.
On a broader level, Frank fears the same thing is happening for all mankind, replacing our collective “memories” of library books with digital devices. In one scene, Frank opens the door to the “modernized library,” hears loud music from inside, and decides not to enter. In another, he laments, “It seems the library is being overhauled by the very people who stopped coming there in the first place.”
Hats off to screenwriter Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier for understanding these themes, making the film more than just a “high concept” buddy flick. I was fascinated by this thematic territory and wanted the script to go even further. Frank’s initial resistance to the bot has a few funny zingers, but it had the potential for even more “get off of my lawn” Luddite crotchetiness, like Eastwood in “Gran Torino” (2008). His emotional connection with the robot could have also been further developed, lending more credence to the admission, “He’s my friend,” and better setting up the “does he recognize me” finale. Finally, the entire heist angle could have been more satisfying. The break-ins come way too easy (i.e. an unlocked door), rendering the robot’s lock-picking training superfluous.
I encourage both filmmakers to keep at it, because the potential is there. After all, “Robot & Frank” is the first feature-length film for both Ford and Schreier, the former keyboardist for the indie band Francis and the Lights, who also provides the film’s soundtrack. The jump from music to directing isn’t new. Charlie Chaplin and John Carpenter both scored their own films, and historians love to say how Hitchcock could play his audience like a piano. Schreier still has a ways to go to be considered in that class, but I’d be willing to see more.
“Robot & Frank” is playing in select theaters in our area. D.C. residents can see it at the Landmark E. Street Cinema in Northwest, Virginians can go to the AMC Loews Shirlington 7 in Arlington, and Marylanders can head to the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema in Bethesda. If the film sparks your curiosity in artificial intelligence, but leaves you wanting more, swing over to the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, which is showing the greatest treatment of it in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) this weekend.