Wiping the Memory
Frank (Frank Langella) is a "retired" jewel thief, and getting old. By day, he sits around the house, getting up late and reading a book—that old, antiquated form of reading in the future. When he has half a mind to, he'll wander into town and visit the library, and flirt with librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), and do a little light shop-lifting. At night, he indulges in some light lock-picking...a man has to have a hobby.
But, living isolated, 30 years divorced with two grown kids with their own lives, he's solitary...and failing. It's tough for son Hunter (James Marsden) to keep an eye on him, so he gets Frank the latest thing...a robot caretaker (performed by Rachael Ma, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard*) to get Frank on a regulated schedule, cook him healthy meals, clean, and program some beneficial activities.
To Frank, the robot is one big rectal thermometer, and he spends the initial first few days trying to find a way to turn the thing off or, at least, a way to get under its metal skin (those lock-picks might come in handy!). Frank grouses, kvetches, protests and Robot (he never gets around to naming it) re-directs, gently persuades, all according to a program that looks for improvement, adjusts its approach and gently pushes. It is altogether clear that Robot is more capable of change than Frank. But, they're stuck with each other, in sickness and in health, until the old thief notices the precision and flexibility of the robot. Maybe they might be of some use to each other, after all.
It's a great idea for a story, and the capacity for old dogs and programs to learn new tricks. It might be a little too "out there" to make Frank a jewel thief, as the tale would be just as compelling, the interactions (the best part of the film) as interesting without it, but without that angle there wouldn't be much of a plot. And the movie falls flat in the same area most speculative movies fall flat the sociological aspect. Oh, they get little technology details fine (there's one futuristic electric car, all the others are very contemporary) and the fashions are a little forward (but not hysterical ala The Hunger Games), but everything feels exactly the same as now. There are no details, beside the talk of "brain-centers" and the demise of the bound book, about what the effect of these mechanical man-servants on people's lives, or the plight of the mentally challenged in this world. This future does not look compelling, and after saying the film is set in "the near future," the idea is pretty much abandoned.**
But, that's the details. For the most part, Robot & Frank clanks along, with a nicely done performance by Langella, the central interaction between the titular characters being the heart, soul and well-greased gears of it.
Robot & Frank is a Matinee.
* Sarsgaard's performance is in the same soft, reedy, solicitous manner that, I suppose, is de rigeur post-HAL 9000—Kevin Spacey did the same thing in Moon—but one wonders if one can do anything else with it, besides, of course, fussy butlers.
** I could also quibble about one relationship being a little too neatly tied together, but to say anything else would be spoiling things.