It’s instantly obvious from the first roadside shot of a car pulling along a leafy road that director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford have a background in advertising – this being the first feature-length film from the pair and based on a concept they knocked around at New York Tisch School of the Arts. There’s a glossy, near fetishistic approach to stuff, things, objects, cars and obviously robots, with people as almost emoting props in a world that is uncluttered and sanitised, but that’s kind of the point, as Robot & Frank‘s world is one where people have marginalised themselves.
Frost/Nixon‘s capable and charismatic Frank Langella is an oasis of warmth and humanity as his crotchety, twinkling retired tea leaf Frank dances fey dance with Alzheimer’s like a man in a Forties Hollywood musical. Son Hunter, played by the dictionary definition of an emoting prop, X-Men and Superman Returns‘ James Marsden, entrusts him to the care of a sleek, white iRobot voiced by Green Lantern‘s Peter Sarsgaard, out of concerns that he’s incapable of taking care of himself. In true buddy comedy style, the cantankerous Frank initially distrusts the robot, and then they bond as he trains Robot as his partner in crime to take down obnoxious yuppie and library-destroying cartoon technophile Jake (Jeremy Strong).
Also in there is Susan Sarandon as librarian and patient object of Frank’s desire Jennifer, and overbearing, hippy daughter Madison (Lord Of The Rings‘ Liv Tyler), but their contributions are so emotionally slight as to feel incidental, leaving the more than worthy Langella to carry the audience through this antiseptic showroom universe and into a unexpectedly affecting story.
As much as Robot & Frank is specifically about Frank’s gradual estrangement from a world that’s changing – the scale of those changes frighteningly amplified by his fading memory – it’s about all of us, and our very introspective concerns about our world. It’s strangely refreshing to find a sci-fi film that uses its carefully constructed near future as an tool to address very introspective, individual fears instead of grand sweeping ones – a perfect counterpoint to the dumb, confused-face search for meaning in the likes of Len Wiseman‘s Total Recall.
For all its slick squint-and-it-could-be-prequel-to-Pixar‘s-WALL-E production design, Robot & Frank is a staunchly sweet and traditional buddy comedy/crime caper. Genuinely funny and, by its closing chapter, heart-wrenching, Schreier and Ford’s debut feature is simultaneously one of the most safely uncontroversial and idiosyncratically lovely small scale sci-fi movies in a while.