The plot of the amiable indie Robot & Frank can be easily summarized. Frank (Langella) is getting on in years and consequently has a sometimes failing memory, which his son Hunter (James Marsden) has grown exasperated trying to assist with. Since the movie takes place in the not-too-distant future, Hunter takes an option which is apparently available to him – namely, purchasing a sleek, featureless robot servant to assist his father in remaining healthy and oriented. After a brief period of crotchety resistance, Frank eventually warms to the machine when he realizes that he can convince it to assist him in jewel heists. Hilarity ensues.
A more succinct reading of the film might exclude that final detail. Yes, the fact that Frank is a career criminal who has never tired of the satisfaction that comes from being the best in his field does a lot toward moving the plot forward; in that way, it’s a major component of the movie as a whole. After all, without the addition of the hijinks that Robot and Frank find themselves in, what would be left aside from the gently built “friendship” that blossoms between the pair? I put the word friendship in quotation marks (and italics that time, just to spice things up) because, as Robot is quick to point out on numerous occasions, “he” is not alive and therefore has no working understanding of concepts like friendship, criminality, gender identity, and so forth. Their string of burglaries sets up a heightened third act which helps draw a line connecting the film’s themes regarding memory – a through-line that is well orchestrated, if not exactly life-changing – but I nevertheless find myself perfectly satisfied by the smaller scale of drama that exists independent of those goofy shenanigans.
As a specific example, Frank’s early protestations that the Robot is a nuisance and will eventually kill him in his sleep are received with considerable concern by his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a liberal activist who feels that the mechanization of home care is an affront to human healthcare workers. She eventually arrives to stay with her father and provide for his needs, but only after Frank has formed a bond with the robot. Madison’s first task upon arriving at the home is to whisper a secret code to the robot which forces it to power down, a development that clearly upsets her father. In the scenes following, we see Frank’s previous listlessness return. He draws the shades, he allows the house to grow messy – in essence, he too is shutting down. One might argue that he’s acting in a calculated manner to persuade Madison to revive the robot only in pursuit of his criminal undertakings, but I’m of the opinion that his frustration is largely genuine.
It put me in mind of a similarly low-key science fiction movie, Moon. That movie ended with a race against the clock that betrayed its philosophical premise more readily than the finale of Robot & Frank does, but the thing that struck me about that film was the suggestion that the main character’s robotic helper has as much a claim to humanity as anyone. Similarly, Robot here has an expansive memory bank that allows “him” to respond to Frank’s personality in a way that the older man will find endearing (e.g. appealing to Frank’s sympathy by suggesting that Robot is afraid to be categorized as useless if unable to succeed at its given duty of improving the life of its owner). The robot makes its own decisions based on rational and moral criteria. It recognizes urgency, cares for Frank in a very personal manner, and appreciates the power of metaphor. Frank bonds with Robot in a very real way, so it’s understandable that he would get upset when his companion takes pains to point out that the friendship is one-sided by virtue of of the mechanical man’s electronic existence.
This ties neatly with suggestions by an evil library-developer/demolisher that Frank’s role in life is as little more than as a connection to a past that no longer exists. Frank disagrees – he sees himself as vital, as the genius crook he once was, even though his sudden attacks of forgetfulness tend to leave tracks at the scene of the crime. He’s not unaware of his age, however, and thus uses Robot to assist in his criminal undertakings. In effect, Frank is living vicariously through the robot – teaching it the tricks of the trade, suggesting ways to evade detection, and so forth – so that when Robot insists that it has no purpose beyond maintaining its owner’s good health, it serves as a painful reminder of the beliefs of many others that Frank himself is limited in usefulness. So Frank’s best times are when he doesn’t have to think about that, when he can just enjoy the company and convince himself that there’s more underneath that inexpressive faceplate than Robot is willing to divulge (there are suggestions later in the movie that Frank has a right to these suspicions, but it remains merely a suggestion). Accordingly, those are the best moments of the movie.
They may not be the most meaningful moments, in the sense that they don’t build the story or cultivate the themes as strongly as other elements of the movie might. Given the casual villainy of the new caretaker of the library and the uselessness of a reveal by way of twist in the final act, “building a story” is not the film’s strong suit anyway. There are many different genres that the picture fits into, but I find the most joy in viewing it simply. I see Robot & Frank not as a wacky caper or a life-affirming statement about ‘you’re only as old as you feel’ or the like. Instead, I see a sweet buddy movie (albeit one tinged with a hint of melancholy). It’s not The Wacky Misadventures of Robot & Frank; instead, it is simply Robot & Frank. Being in the company of these two, watching their relationship grow and considering how much of a relationship is really there… these are the aspects of the film that I take to heart. Everything else is just filler, some good and some bad, but all less than essential.