Retired jewel thief Frank (Frank Langella) floats around town, gently whittling down the end of his days by stealing decorative soap from the local crafts shop - thus plugging the cat-burglar-shaped hole in his heart. Heading over to the library in an attempt to woo librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) is the highlight of his day. Set in the ‘near future’, the library is facing closure and rebranding to usher in the new era of information at a click (aren’t we already there?).
His son Hunter (James Marsden) drives long distance to check on him because of his dementia, with Frank being dismissive of needing any help. Sick of his father’s attitude, Hunter brings him a gift; his very own robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Super intelligent, able to perform all of Frank’s household chores and take care of him. But all this means to Frank is that he’s waving goodbye to his last shred of independence.
Needless to say, Frank takes an immediate dislike to Robot. He’s bossy, patronising and substitutes his beloved sugary cereal for a healthy alternative. Robot then insists that Frank needs to find himself a project to stimulate himself, and suggests starting a garden. But after their ‘innocent’ trip to the craft shop, in which Frank attempts to steal more soap, Frank begins to take a little bit of a shine to Robot.
Robot understands the literal concept of stealing, but has no opinion on whether this is right or wrong. Being the helpful chap he is; he offers to program himself with the law, to which Frank politely dismisses. A new crime duo is born…
Never wanting the jewel-thieving business for his own children, Robot has become Frank’s project. Frank truly has a new lease of life as he plots to steal the library’s priceless copy of The Count Of Monte Cristo for Jennifer. But he’s ailing in his efforts and leaves his reading glasses at the scene. When the police investigate, Frank becomes the chief suspect because of his notorious police record.
While daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) and Hunter bicker behind his back about what's best for their dad, Frank himself plots another heist to make him feel alive again. Once he gets a whiff of slippery yuppie consultant Jake’s plans for the library, and fuelled by the discovery of Jake’s wife’s jewellery, Frank and Robot go on stake-out duty.
But Madison ain’t happy about Hunter’s arrangement. Just as Frank gets in the midst of the heist plans with Robot, Madison muscles her way back into his life, taking on all of Robot’s tasks in protest against him.
The nature of the characters centrally involved always keeps the pace rather slow, but well suited, and never boring. There’s clear progression of Robot and Frank’s friendship, and it really is rather sweet.
Robot has his own little witticisms as he begins to shape a personality around Frank’s needs. “Stop molesting me” he deadpans, as a group of school children crowd around and poke about. He’s even encouraged to engage in polite conversation with library-bot Mr Darcy.
Frank slipping into dementia also serves as a pretty useful way for the script to swim through the exposition, as well as feeling a great deal of sympathy for him. In fact it’s probably the one mental illness where, translated on screen, the depiction doesn’t become too cartoonish. There are times when he is confused and there is a real vulnerability about him and Robot that make them such a likable duo. Robot’s truly a valued companion and they become equally reliant on each other.
An emotional, if predictable, climax to the film see’s true closure and transparency of all Frank’s relationships, with Robot’s own ‘memories’ under threat, and both of them under suspicion.
Robot & Frank is soft and sentimental, but it never makes you want to reach for the sick bucket. It takes great steady care in exploring what it is to be alive, through the human and the artificial, and about the future in all its guises. Frank builds Robot’s mind as his own is slipping away, attempting to leave the legacy he could never leave his children in good conscience. It’s a lovely little film and deserves all the support it can get. A geriatric, indie To Catch A Thief with robots. And as good as that sounds.