In the indie dramedy Robot & Frank, Frank Langella plays Frank, a semi-retired jewel thief with a failing memory and a messy home, situated in a quaint small town in the not-too-distant future. And Peter Sarsgaard provides the voice of Robot, the technologically advanced butler/health-care worker Langella’s son James Marsden buys for him, so Marsden won’t have to spend 10 hours every weekend driving up from the city to check on his pop. Langella initially resents this meddling hunk of metal, and finds a sympathetic ear in his hippie daughter Liv Tyler, who rails against dehumanizing technology. But then, in typical buddy-movie fashion, Langella has a change of heart, once he realizes he can train Robot to help him pull a couple more big heists in his neighborhood.
Robot & Frank’s main failing is that too much of it could be described as “typical _______,” with the blank filled in by everything from “light science fiction” to “grumpy-old-man movie.” Writer Christopher Ford and first-time feature-director Jake Schreier have built Robot & Frank to be a crowd-pleaser, which may explain why the film is so flat in style, and not all that rich in theme. The movie is content to watch Langella flirt with local librarian Susan Sarandon, and match wits with local law enforcement; it assumes audiences will enjoy just spending time with a stubborn coot who’s often underestimated. Robot & Frank is an old-school indie: more concerned with telling a story and moving an audience than challenging anyone.
But there’s nothing wrong with that, really. Ford’s screenplay is sturdily crafted—with a couple of good twists down the stretch—and Schreier elicits warm performances from Langella and Sarandon, and even from the robot, thanks to Sarsgaard. On the whole, Robot & Frank is fleet and sweet, a nice 90 minutes. And while there isn’t much to it, it does have substance. There’s a connection between Sarandon’s library, which is converting from print to digital, and Langella’s memory, which is weakening to the point that he needs mechanical help. This is a movie about transitions, and how friends can make them easier, if no less painful.