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He’s Frank (Frank Langella), by name and frank by nature. He may be old and grumpy but he’s had a colourful past and is determined to maintain his independence during his retirement. His son Hunter (James Marsden) thinks he has the solution to his father’s medical and personal needs so he acquires a butler. That’s a robot butler, a VGC-60L (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), who will hopefully attend to all of Frank’s needs, whether he wants that help or not. Although Frank appears to be an respectable member of society and likes nothing better than to visit the local library and meet up with his librarian friend Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), his former employment skills were not perhaps considered to be so acceptable within the community. His amusing personality traits may make him appear to be an old hip cat but his abilities were more of the cat burglar variety, be that shoplifting in a local soap store (whilst refuting the robbery to the owner with the acting experience of a pro) or a desire to a return to the major thieving operations that made his younger days so enjoyable and financially rewarding. Okay, they did lead to a few years in prison, something that both the police and the local financial yuppie library developer Jake (Jeremy Strong) refuse to let him forget – they continue to suspect him of major pilfering activity. They may be right because when Frank discovers that his new companion is trained to obey his every command, maybe his robotic chum can develop into a larcenous android and they can both enjoy some serious criminality together.
Robot & Frank is a film that combines old form story telling with a vaguely science-fiction premise and two protagonists – a pensioner and an android – who form an odd companionship. It may be set in the future but its themes are all too relevant for the present. The local library is about to be revamped. It even has a Mr Darcy robot who files the books, threatening the very existence of the place and, more importantly, the texts available therein – real books, both ancient and modern, including a wonderful copy of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, which is highly coveted by Jennifer.
Frank Langella gives a pitch perfect performance as an unconventional anti-hero. Whereas in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) the lead character John Robie (Cary Grant) is suspected of returning to his old career as a jewellery thief, the premise in Robot & Frank is all too clear – the old guy is a thief, he enjoys the thrill of rebellion and he doesn’t want to be redeemed. Planning a burglary is what actually keeps him active – both mentally and physically. And don’t you just love the old scallywag for that? The VGC-60L may be programmed to improve an elderly person’s physical and mental health but he is adaptable and has a form of AI which gives him a ‘personality’ which enables him to participate in discussions and even consider philosophical questions: ‘I know that I’m not alive. I’m a robot.’
There are issues raised amidst the gentle humour but they appear in a non-intrusive way. Themes of ageing – both in the way that society is dealing with an ageing population (including how the pressures that work and distance might have on family life), as well as the means by which technology is changing society (the renovation of the library) are addressed but they do not dominate proceedings.
So Robot and Frank is a film that tackles ageing in a way that is not realistic but not patronising. Its unconventional protagonists ensure that it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable commercial venture.