Robot & Frank: Beneficial intelligence



Directed by Jake Schreier. Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler 12A cert, limited release, 88 min

“That thing’s going to kill me in my sleep,” scowls ex-thief Frank (Frank Langella), as his exasperated son Hunter (James Marsden) unveils the new home help. Troubled by Frank’s increasing dementia and worn out from weekly long haul drives away from his own children, busy lawyer Hunter has purchased a robot pal for dad.

From the get-go, Frank doesn’t much care for the charming automaton (silkily voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) or its attempts to regulate his habits and diet. Liv Tyler, playing Frank’s faraway philanthropist daughter, pops up with further Luddite concerns.

Still, when the former convict realises that his shiny new companion can’t distinguish between therapeutic gardening activities and illegal breaking and entering, robot and Frank pair and bond in preparation for a last big score. Will it be enough to wow the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) that Frank has his eye on? Or will they finally cart our roguish hero off to the euphemistic sounding “Memory Centre”?

Working from a script by Christopher Ford, commercials sector wünderkind Jake Schreier has crafted a deceptively simple buddy picture. The film, a prize winner at last year’s Sundance, touches its big issues lightly: caring for the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s; potential abuses of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics; the perplexing nexus of relations between humanity and artificial intelligence.

Commendably, Schreier’s vision of the future is tasteful and grounded in our own technological capacities. The TV phone is
merely faster, voice-responsive Skype. The robot is based on the Honda Asimo.

If anything, the film-makers take too few risks with the futurology and, sadly, with the drama. Robot & Frank, like its non-human character, is sleek and pristine. Langella and the rest of the troupe all put in finely crafted turns around weighty themes, but the final product lacks clout. The streamlined screenplay is so compact that one longs for mountains where the molehills are. One can’t help but feel we’re watching 30 minutes of killer material stretched out and weakened at feature length.

No matter. Who could feel gypped watching a movie this sweet and melancholic? And how refreshing to see a mannerly robot that doesn’t go all Demon Seed in the final reel.