I’m not a big fan of movies about old people. I’ve never been one to sit down and watch On Golden Pond, I wasn’t rushing out to see The Bucket List. Hell, I’ve never even seen Cocoon, and it has Steve Guttenberg in it!
I guess, maybe, when I become a senior citizen and start to have paralyzing depression while ruminating about lost loved ones or my usefulness in society, those sorts of films might draw me in. At my current age they just don’t have a lot of appeal to me.
So it was on a whim I went to see Robot & Frank, a film set in the near future about a senior citizen, Frank (Frank Langella), with Alzheimer’s who gets a robot caretaker known simply as Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard).
Frank and his wife are divorced but they have two children, Madison (Liv Tyler), who is off with a Peace Corps-type group trying to save the world one third world country at a time, and Hunter (James Marsden), who seems a bit more pragmatic. Madison constantly harangues her older (or possibly younger…it’s completely irrelevant) brother to make sure he keeps an eye on their father.
Hunter is at his wit’s end with dear old dad. Sometimes Frank remembers Hunter, sometimes he doesn’t. On top of that, it’s a five hour drive from Hunter’s to Frank’s, and Hunter has his own life as an attorney with a wife and children. He feels he has two choices: Put Frank in a home or get him a robot caretaker to help take care of him.
While this seems like the perfect set-up for the exact same sort of melodramatic nonsense I currently have no stomach for – ah, poor Frank, confused and alone, finally finds a friend in a mechanical companion – this movie comes with an interesting twist. See, Frank is an ex-convict and former cat burglar. While he is at first cold towards the robot, he soon warms up when he hatches a plan to pull off one more robbery with the help of his automated companion.
This is, primarily, why I enjoyed Robot & Frank. There is such an obvious, and easy, tearjerker to make here, a film about a lonely, sick man who can only find solace in the one person that truly understands him…and he happens to not be a person at all. But, by and large, the filmmakers stray away from that angle, instead creating a sort of lo-fi buddy comedy.
This isn’t to say there isn’t some melancholy in the film, and I wouldn’t expect it be devoid of emotion, as it does deal with a serious illness, but these aspects are dealt with naturally. Reflected subtly in the way Frank deals with both his robot and his family members, as well as the world around him. It isn’t rammed down our throats with withering shots of family members weeping over forever forgotten memories.
Every aspect of the film doesn’t work perfectly. In particular, one of Frank’s marks, Jake (Jeremy Strong) gets suspicious of Frank and has local constable Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto) check him out. While the original introduction of Jake makes for some rich humor – Jake’s rich, uber-hipster-ish demeanor juxtaposing wildly with Frank’s gruff, old school ex-convict personality – it eventually devolves in to a sort of slapstick keystone cops routine while the duo try and catch Frank red-handed.
Still, the film is one worth seeing if it comes your way. It’s heartfelt but never cloying, and while the idea of conceivably ever having to deal with as debilitating a disease as Alzheimer’s may have you shedding a few tears, the film never panders for them. It mixes humor and grief without employing the sledge hammer, and is the better for it.
Written by Ryan Venson