The new independent dramedy “Robot & Frank” is not a science-fiction film, per se, but it is set in “the near future,” and it offers a plausible prophesy of science and technology’s cutting-edge frontiers.
In the film, which opens today across South Florida, TVs, landlines and Skype technology have merged into one; calls come directly through the flat-screen, complete with an image of the caller. To answer the call, the recipient need only speak the word “Hello.” Cell phones are sleeker and transparent, like Lucite picture frames; video images of every caller are par for the course. The printed word is jetting light-speed toward its obsolescence, with a local library recycling its archive of paper-and-binding in a digital “rebranding.”
And in the foreground there’s the robot – a retro-looking but intellectually advanced mechanical biped that walks, talks, cooks and cleans. It’s a breakthrough that’s only slightly more evolved than the actual automatons already being developed by Japanese engineers, and it’s perfectly logical that such devices will be used, in the immediate future, as home health care aids. In hindsight, perhaps Obamacare should have included an Affordable Robot Provision.
That’s the good stuff about “Robot & Frank:” it’s a movie that shows the near future not as a post-apocalytpic doomscape or a farfetched fantasy of flying cars and teleportation. It’s the world we live in now, only techier. But the thematic direction pursued by screenwriter Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier is not as refreshingly lucid as its milieu. Instead, the film’s creators mine syrupy pathos, presenting a provincial progression of sentimentality that never quite lives up to the potential of its premise.
The “Frank” of the title is played by a real-life Frank: avuncular character actor Frank Langella. He plays a divorced, formerly imprisoned cat burglar now living as a grizzled, grumpy old man suffering from dementia in Cold Spring, New York. He wanders his neighborhood in a haze of senility, wooing the local librarian (Susan Sarandon), pilfering gewgaws from suspicious shop owners and avoiding protestations from his children – humanitarian worker Madison (Liv Tyler) and affluent Princeton alum Hunter (James Marsden) – that he enter a care facility.
So Hunter arranges for the next best thing: a robotic butler to run Frank’s daily affairs, boost his diet and improve his cognitive abilities. At first, Frank resists the robot with every fiber of his being, until he realizes that having a compliant partner around the house might be beneficial. A cat burglar once is a cat burglar always, and it isn’t long until Frank enlists the services of his mechanized helper to pick locks and heist jewels from the snarky cockroach sent to re-brand the library.
That Frank will develop genuine feelings for his synthetic sidekick is an unfortunate inevitability. Langella is a great actor, and his talent shows here too, but he almost looks bored as he goes through the sentimental motions dictated by commercial formula – he appeared far more inspired in recent work like “Starting Out in the Evening,” “The Box” and even his tragic cameo in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” I was more taken with Peter Sarsgaard, a bizarre but effective choice as the robot’s voice, delivered as an affectless, slightly creepy monotone evoking the HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But beyond its creative evocation of the near future, this is a film that leaves little to the imagination. “Robot & Frank” is a charmingly diverting trifle that reduces its best ideas to its own periphery.
“Robot & Frank” is now playing at Cinemark Palace 20, Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, Regal Delray Beach 18, Muvico Parisian 20 in West Palm Beach, Cobb Jupiter 18 and the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.