It is, as its titles declares, about a robot. And Frank.
This sentimental comedy about old age, forgetfulness, family and a robot that “feels” works better than it has any right to, largely through Langella’s way with a curmudgeon, his force of personality.
The Frank this Frank plays is an aged retiree in upstate New York, a man living out his golden years “in the near future,” when the cars have grown tinier, the phones even thinner and the local library an almost empty “museum” for books, in need of a hip makeover and young people who decide that it’s cool to want to read that way again.
Frank is a cranky loner who forgets that his favorite diner closed years before, that he’s been divorced for thirty years, what his kids’ names are, on occasion.
But he hasn’t forgotten how to pick a lock. He hasn’t forgotten that he did time for being “a second story man,” a jewel thief. So he makes it a habit of shoplifting something every trek he makes into town.
His son (James Marsden) is tired of worrying about the clutter Frank lives in and the weekly trips he has to make to check on Dad. So he rents the guy a robot “helper.” Frank isn’t convinced.
“That thing is going to murder me in my sleep!”
Frank resists the healthier diet the robot prepares, the exercise the robot wants him to do. Until, that is, the robot makes him see it from his point of view.
“If you die eating cheese burgers, what happens to me?” the VGC 60L asks in Peter Sarsgaard’s soothing version of the HAL 9000 from “2001.” The robot will be deemed a failure, shipped back to the factory and have its memory scrubbed. Frank’s humanity gets the better of him and he relents.
“It’s time for your enema,” the robots purrs.
Besides, the robot can be his audience, hearing about Frank’s glorious past as a thief. Heck, the robot (basically a woman in a plastic suit) could be his apprentice.
“Any lock can be picked.” And, “This is what we call ‘casing'” the joint, Frank teaches.
Christopher Ford’s script makes few demands for special effects and not many more demands of the players. Frank and the robot plan jobs and carry them out, and try to keep a low profile as they do. Frank re-connects with his globe-trotting daughter (Liv Tyler), who comes home to fuss over him at the worst possible time. He flirts with the soon-to-be-redundant librarian (Susan Sarandon) and crosses swords with the rude yuppy hipster (Jeremy Strong).
“You’re so square, you’re practically avante garde,” the young guy sneers.
More could have been done with the capers, more made of the town’s “pigeons” waiting for Frank and the robot to pluck their feathers — or jewels.
But Langella, interacting with that short, helmeted version of C3PO, never lets on that this is a lark, never lets us see that forgetful Frank sees anything less than a golden opportunity for golden age scores in this new partnership.
It’s more humorous than funny, more charming than truly entertaining. But “Robot & Frank” can still be savored for its human assetts, especially the 74 year-old who finally gets to play a character who shares his first name.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language
Cast: Frank Langella, Liv Tyler, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon
Credits: Directed by Jake Schreier, written by Christopher Ford. A Samuel Goldwyn/Stage 6 release.
Running time: 1:28