The near future of Robot & Frank could pass as the present, minus a few sparkly additions: sleek, single-person cars that zip around and, most glaringly, quasi-sentient robotic aides that serve the enfeebled and/or lonely. It’s a reminder that however quickly technology advances, real life tends to stay the same. It also belies the modest ambitions of Christopher D. Ford’s screenplay, which pits one such cyber-helper (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) with Frank Langella’s Frank, an aging crank in the early stages of dementia. His loving but physically distant kids—married yuppie Hunter (James Marsden) and hippie do-gooder Madison (Liv Tyler)—can’t always tend to his rural New York manse, and the former, distressed by his father’s stubborn eating and living habits, up and forces onto him a trendy robot known only as Robot.
Robot & Frank follows the traditional route of buddy comedies, with our grouch initially resisting his helper’s help, yet ultimately finding with him deep and profound friendship. But it’s hard to resist Ford’s lone twist to the genre: Frank, a seasoned cat burglar, comes to appreciate Robot once he realizes his mechanical friend is a great partner in larceny. Seems Robot’s designers never installed in him an ethical understanding of the law, and soon this rascally old-timer has enlisted him in a series of thefts around the neighborhood, including breaking into the houses of those who’ve slighted or annoyed him.
Exploiting technology for petty desires is a great and always welcome concept; the terrific, mind-fucking, no-budget sci-fi Primer includes an even better one, where one of our heroes uses time travel to re-live a certain minor event and look like a small-time hero. Robot & Frank is considerably more conventional, to put it lightly, gradually going from slightly loopy to a more conventional indie-almost-weepie that gently pulls strings with its tale of unlikely friendship, as well as Frank’s flirtations with a lonely librarian (Susan Sarandon) at an unvisited library getting rid of its books. Like most of the cast, Langella does his best to funk up the proceedings; this is the most enjoyable of his autumn year turns. Robot & Frank is powerfully, likably slight, but it should prove hard to forget Sarsgaard’s vocal work, which subtly injects notes of know-it-all dickishness into his otherwise expertly artificial inflections.