There are movies with robots and there are movies without robots. Sadly, Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is a movie with a robot, where the robot has no reason to be one other than to provide a hook for an otherwise intolerably mundane story; a teenaged truant, a granddaughter, or an infant koala bear could just as easily have replaced this sentient helper. What the addition of the robot, who becomes complicit in the final crime spree of the titular retired jewel thief (Frank Langella), allows is a certain visual flair: the sight of a small futuristically designed automobile and a few conversations taking place on a slightly advanced Skype-type apparatus are the most obvious examples.
The most risible instance of this sort of lazy showboating is in fact central to the plot. Suffering from long bouts of memory loss, Frank is doted on by his globetrotting daughter (Liv Tyler) and proves a source of tremendous frustration for his family-man son (James Marsden). The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, is a gift from and a solution for Frank’s son, designed to watch Frank’s diet, get him on a schedule, and keep him busy. Frank’s only real escape is his bi-daily trips to the library to pick up some old tomes and make chitchat with the lovely librarian (Susan Sarandon). It’s the library’s decision to go completely digital, masterminded by a shallowly constructed software-obsessed yuppie (Jeremy Strong), which sets Frank back to his old profession, using the suggestible robot as his partner.
At heart, Christopher D. Ford’s script is about the stagnation and loss of one’s mental and physical capacities as one draws nearer to the inevitable, but it doesn’t echo very strongly in Schreier’s direction. And there’s something to the distance between being capable of doing something and knowing how to do something that’s only briefly accounted for here, as the robot is little more than a dull character in a line of many. If Frank is well pronounced as a character, it’s only because Langella is an actor whose very presence and unique timbre suggest a worn-in, salty wisdom and just the slightest hints of an internalized wildness. The rest of the cast, including an underutilized Jeremy Sisto, is given paper-thin caricatures to add a pulse to, and the slack of the needlessly convoluted drama reflects an undeniable ambivalence in the material by its chief architects.
So, Frank’s eventual scheme to rip off the high-end jewels that the yuppie prizes his wife with becomes a central inciting incident, one which pays neither comedic or tenuous dividends. Rather, Ford and Schreier use this, along with some boilerplate familial drama, as a backdrop for the friendship that’s proposed to grow between the two eponymous figures. In reality, however, Robot & Frank relies on its single rote element of creation (that of the robot and its suggestion of the fleetly relationship between time and technology) to disguise the film’s overall lack of inventiveness and inspiration. Ultimately, the film is nothing more than a Lifetime movie dolled up in cheap Philip K. Dick drag.