Expectations for a film can destroy a movie-going experience before you’ve even seen it. Some films are hyped beyond the point where such lofty expectations cannot possibly be realised (‘Prometheus’, ahem, ‘Dark Knight Rises’), while others are set so low that what you experience is often pleasingly surprising (‘Magic Mike’). Sometimes knowing as little about the experience you’re about to immerse yourself in is better than knowing the one-sheet backwards.
Not so with 'Robot & Frank'. While some will be amused and delighted by the film’s odd angles and unexpected evolution, others will sit in baffled silence at each strange character motivation, each new plot point, and every weak parallel it tries to draw with an increasingly clumsy bow. While ignorance has its many blissful moments, the film ultimately suffers from blind exposure. To paraphrase the Boy Scouts, it’s better to be prepared.
Frank (Frank Langella), an aging divorcee, lives alone in the New England(ish) forests of the unspecified near future. His put-upon children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) are increasingly impatient with their father’s stubborn refusal to downgrade, especially given his apparent onset of dementia. Enter “Robot”, a high-tech, near-sentient robot butler his children believe will help keep Frank’s body healthy and his mind stimulated. Frank, however, politely disagrees.
So far, so humdrum. The conventional odd-couple dynamics, here given a futuristic spin, are played to expectation. Frank is a cinematic curmudgeon, gruff and rude without impunity. Robot, fastidious and logical to a fault, is his antithetical foil in every way, but unlike his human counterparts, he’s immune to Frank’s belittling. While there’s some humour to be mined from Frank’s cruelty to others (as there is from Robot’s dry sense of irony), it sits awkwardly with his worsening mental condition. The film, adamant dementia is not a laughing matter, is too often guilty of a double standard, of wanting to have its cake and eat it too.
This is especially true when the film veers into an unexpected and ill-conceived narrative involving multi-million-dollar jewel thievery. It seems Frank, prior to his ailing ageing state, was a convicted cat burglar (the repercussions and consequences of which seem to work primarily as plot contrivance, and are hazy at best). Convincing Robot a return to his former ways as a kind of “physical therapy”, Frank recruits Robot as his accomplice, conspiring to burgle the mansion of an insufferable hipster responsible for closing the town library.
The film pretends to be high art, where in reality the material seems far better suited to a broad buddy comedy in the vein of “Will Ferrell stars, with the voice of Steve Carell...”
Such high-concept quirk could quickly prove fruitful to a director such as Wes Anderson or even Spielberg, where just the right amount of whimsy and a delicate sentimental touch could form a cohesive, rousing amalgamation of the human and the fantastic. As it is, under virgin-helmer Jake Schreier’s direction, the film is a needlessly prosaic, often tonally void series of beautifully composed images and camera movements. The film pretends to be high art, where in reality the material seems far better suited to a broad buddy comedy in the vein of “Will Ferrell stars, with the voice of Steve Carell...” It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, and not dramatic enough to be a drama. Instead, it inhabits an empty space in between, where it just sits, inert.
Unsubtle in its desire to be “a moving, thoughtful rumination on the power of memory and redemption”, the film ultimately comes across as pretentious and boring. While there are some laughs to be had, mostly elicited by Langella’s stubborn shtick and Robot’s suspiciously manipulative personality (care of Peter Sarsgaard’s voice over), they are few and far between. An unsatisfying too-neat ending strains the already thin premise, and tips the film into the uneven, mawkish sentimentality of a thousand other, better pictures about loss and mental illness.
As an exercise in expectation, ‘Robot & Frank’ is exactly what its title suggests: safe, middling, and disappointingly literal.