"Wasn't that wonderful?"
I looked over from the bathroom sink where I was washing my hands after the Robot & Frank screening. The not-quite-elderly woman a few feet away was reapplying mascara to her already made-up face. She had short-cropped hair a shade of red not found in nature and was wearing a dreamy expression on her face. I smiled and nodded.
"You should have seen him when he was younger! He was sinfully handsome," she continued. "And Susan Sarandon got to kiss him!"
The "him" in question was the titular Frank, actor Frank Langella. And given his still handsome brown eyes and broad-shouldered portrayal of a doddering old man in Robot & Frank, I had no reason to doubt her assessment of his younger beauty. A vet of both stage and screen, Langella's most recent role is that of an aging jewel thief struggling with the onset of dementia. The one highlight of his day is his visit the local library to get books and flirt with bright-eyed Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the only remaining flesh-and-blood librarian in the increasingly automated joint.
By situating the movie in the near future, the filmmakers create for the audience an experience similar to Frank's own disorientation. In this IKEA pastoral sketch of the world on the horizon, everything is familiar, but more sleek—the phones, the cars, and the hipsters. Plus, robotic helpers can be found in libraries and are becoming the caretakers of choice for many families looking for help with aging relatives. With Frank slipping in and out of time, his son Hunter (James Marsden) insists on a getting him a robot butler, a VCG-60L to be exact, to keep tabs on him.
This might seem like the set up for a treatise by way of contrast on What It Means to Be Human. But Robot & Frank is less ideological, only glancing off the ethical implications of robotic labor in the form of protests from Frank's daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), which quickly diminish in the face of Robot's conveniences. Frank himself heartily protests robotic aid, but is won over not so much by Robot's ability to cook and clean, but by his potential as a heist partner.
Despite the fact that Frank can't remember that his favorite restaurant closed years ago, his body remembers how to steal. On instinct, he pockets soaps and trinkets and squirrels them away in a safe box at home. And planning larger heists with Robot provides a kind of focus to Frank's days that does wonders for his health. It's an unconventional use of robotic assistance, but one that even Robot agrees to given its good effect on Frank's health—which is of paramount concern to Robot.
Robot looks like a child in a spacesuit and never gets a less-generic name, but it's unlikely he minds. As he reminds Frank with increasing frequency, Robot is just that, a robot. He is not human. But it's impossible not to notice that Robot seems more and more human as he gains what Frank is losing—memory. And the lengths to which Frank will go to preserve Robot's memory only underscores its value.
There's no doubt that the word "endearing" will be used to describe Robot & Frank, but I think that term undercuts the complexity of Frank's life—as a thief, as a father, as a husband, as a friend. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the nature of Frank's relationships with his family, which also ushers us into Frank's experience of the world—in which most of what exists is the immediate present. The camera lingers in a sun-drenched garden, on a quiet afternoon walk, on a stake-out. This moment is what we have with Frank, what we know of his life. He himself is confused about what came before; it stands to reason that we might also wonder.
Langella is masterful in his ability to embody both vulnerability and strength—the paradox at the heart of aging. And I think Robot & Frank works best as an aesthetic meditation on what it means to be in control of your own life as you lose control of your memories. Robot & Frank defies neat emotional categories much the same way getting old defies them. And robots or no, this is a future that awaits us all.Discussion starters
- What do you think about the development of robots? Do you think they're likely to help or hurt people? Why? If you were Frank, would you want to have Robot around?
- What do you most look forward to about getting old? What do you fear?
- Discuss the ways in which each member of Frank's family deals with his memory loss. What would you do the same? What would you do different?
Robot & Frank is rated PG-13 for some language. There is some coarse language throughout and Frank is a thief, but otherwise there are few red flags.
Photos © Samuel Goldwyn Films
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