The Bard wrote that drama's purpose was to hold "the mirror up to nature," a notion given a high-tech spin in Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank. Cold-staring with a black, reflective visor, a robot helps a fading old man to see life, and himself, more clearly.
The robot is a gift from son (James Marsden) to father (Frank Langella), a gift intended to troubleshoot the creeping dementia of retired "second-story man" Frank. Set in the near future, the story proposes an interesting and plausible science-fiction premise that we will soon reach a point when home health-care roles may be performed by robots.
Frank's initial reaction—"You're going to leave me with this death machine?"—turns to opportunism when he realizes that the robot isn't programmed to be law-abiding or moralistic: it's only concern is Frank's mental and physical health. And so Frank makes the reasonable case that the best way to keep his mind active isn't the gardening the robot proposes, but rather planning burglaries.
By the time Frank's daughter (Liv Tyler) threatens to do away with the robot (perhaps inspired by the anti-robot "human movement" mentioned in passing), the old man insists, "I need him...he's my friend." Despite his slippery memory and erratic behavior, Frank remains a skillful manipulator, and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford invites us to consider whether we ought to root for or against this "friendship."
Director Schreier resists tipping the balance while developing the theme of technology's relationship with human interaction and tilting the mirror to us. On the one hand, technology helps Frank to make significant strides in holding back the years ("Some things take time," the robot says, in a moment of programmed persuasive wisdom), but oughtn't we be bonding with the people in our lives, and not machines? Since the adult children have busy lives of their own, Frank is mostly left to his own devices, so to speak and for better or worse.
Robot & Frank operates on a fairly humble scale, with small gestures of futurism and an uncluttered visual and narrative style. There's a deftly handled subplot involving the local librarian (Susan Sarandon), who takes an interest in Frank, her only real patron (the subplot also allows a bit of commentary on the romance sacrificed for technological progress). And there's some good humor in the robot-and-Frank relationship to counterbalance the poignancy of his fading days.
An experienced human (Peter Sarsgaard) provides the voice for the robot, but Schreier is careful only to allow the characters, and not the film, to anthropomorphize the boy-sized robot (Frank, at times, confuses the machine with his son). And though the audience may be tempted to humanize the robot as well, the film excels most as a showcase for the still-crafty, supremely human Langella: whether being grumpy or sly or existentially fretful, Langella makes a great case for the power of the screen to be a looking glass.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]