Here’s a strange phenomenon: “Robot & Frank” is not a bad film, and yet, it’s incredibly easy to start forgetting it even as it’s playing. It’s so light and airy that there’s not really anything to grasp within it. Obviously this is not meant in a physical sense, but more so in an emotional or intellectual one. Without something in one of these areas to lock on to, what purpose would there be in taking the journey that the writer wants to take us on?
The story of “Robot & Frank” is a rather simple one. Taking place in the near future, Frank (Frank Langella) is an elderly man living alone. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), periodically visits him, while his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is around less often due to traveling. Because he is concerned about his dad, Hunter gets him a robot (Voice of Peter Sarsgaard) to take care of him. At first, Frank objects to the whole idea, but he eventually comes around when he finds that the robot can help him with his pastime.
We quickly learn that Frank used to be a cat burglar, and even served several years in prison. When he finds out that his local library, one of his favorite places to visit, is being renovated and getting rid of their books, he takes it upon himself to steal a special edition from their collection for a friend of his that works there. After a successful heist, he next plans to rob the house of the person behind the renovations. However, this time, the job will require much more planning, with the take being jewelry worth millions of dollars.
This may sound like an interesting story, but as I said up top, there’s just not much here to get engaged with. One of the issues it has is that the writer, Christopher Ford, can’t seem to decide what he wants the film to be about. On the one hand, it’s about Frank’s relationships with his son and daughter, on the other it’s about his relationship with the robot, which also ties into his desire to continue with his burgling. Then, as if there wasn’t enough going on, it also deals with his relationship with a local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).
It’s interesting how the titular relationship doesn’t seem to develop very far. At first, you think there is going to be a long spell where he just won’t accept the robot at all. There is indeed such a spell, but it seemed to last all of five minutes (or less) before he comes around to liking it. From that point on, he treats him like a servant that cooks his meals, takes care of him, and helps him when he tries to pull off robberies. Because of this, you never really get the sense that there’s a special relationship between the two, which makes one of the scenes near the end of the film that’s supposed to be a special emotional moment between the two rather weak.
Then you have the relationship between Frank and his son and daughter. When Hunter brings Frank the robot, the old man acts like a rather ungrateful jerk, despite being in need of help because of his forgetfulness. Then, when the story of the second robbery is about to get into full swing, it gets interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Madison, to whom he acts like an even bigger jerk because she deactivates the robot. It’s very hard to muster up any sympathy or emotional attachment for Frank given his behavior, as well as his pastime activities.
Heading into the third act, there are some very odd choices made, including a revelatory bit of information that tells us the robbery Frank commits is right up the road from his house. Did he not think for one second that if he committed a robbery that close to home that he would probably be the first suspect? Another odd choice that was incredibly random has to do with the character of Jennifer. I won’t reveal it, but it would have been nice if this had actually fit into the story better, or if the writer had made better use of it rather than mention it and forget about it.
The most memorable part of the film ends up being Langella’s performance. It seems rarer and rarer that he gets a part as good as this, and indeed, after being nominated for his outstanding performance in “Frost/Nixon” four years ago, he hasn’t really been seen that much at all. He puts a lot into this simple character. It’s particularly interesting how he is able to form a more engaging relationship with the robot that he does with his own offspring. For a film that doesn’t have much there, he certainly gives it his best.
Again, this is not really a bad film. There are parts of it that are engaging and even some parts that are amusing. However, it ends up with a bit of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” Syndrome with its storyline being a little too all over the place, and therefore, there’s not much impact made by the time the credits start to roll. It’s a good effort, but a little focus and more substance would have done it a world of good.
Taking a quick look at the DVD itself, the video is presented in a 2.40:1 widescreen transfer that is of your basic DVD quality. The picture is always sharp throughout with no noticeable blurring. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is loud and clear without having to turn it way up to here it. This makes “Robot & Frank” another one of those films that, despite it being a very small release, got really good treatment.
Unfortunately, the special features are rather sparse. All that’s included on the disc are an audio commentary with Director Jake Schreier and Writer Christopher Ford, as well as a Robot Poster Campaign Gallery. A sampling of the commentary has them talking very briefly about how the idea for the film came about, however, it quickly shows that they don’t have much else to say about the film. The poster gallery is a rather pointless inclusion and merely consists of posters showing the robot’s different uses.
Overall, the DVD is just not recommendable. It may be in excellent quality, but the lack of good special features, as well as the film itself, only serve to drag it down. It would have been rather interesting to see what this film would have been like had the writer been able to come up with something for the audience to get attached to, but I guess we’ll never get to find out.
Special Features: 3/10
Overall Score: 5/10
Available on DVD starting tomorrow.
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