A very small scale production, this movie does as much as it can with little.

Robot & Frank is going to hit you right in the feels if you have older relatives who are losing their grip on their independence. So much of this movie is basically a metaphor for getting old and the experience of “old” that I’m not sure anyone not old can fully appreciate it. It’s a heartfelt movie, quite adorable, but a bit muddy and confusingly bleak by the end. There’s some nice, subtle world-building and the movie has fun with its science fiction trappings, but ultimately they are not critical for the story in a meaningful way. The same could have been accomplished with a contemporary setting, but I think the sense of fun is welcome. And who knows, maybe they intended it for the younger people in the audience who will be actually living with at least the elements of the tech gap present in Robot & Frank.

While it may not be perfect, Robot & Frank is a pretty good little movie with a pretty solid emotional core. You’ll feel stuff, and the movie earns it. It is unsentimental about old age, keeping out the saccharine nostalgia of every year’s Oscar-bait but retaining the essence of what old age is like. It’s more like Gran Torino than The Notebook but with less violence and more robots. That said, the movie is also a bit deconstructive and the end result is sadness.

Langella is perfect, by the way. Couldn’t imagine anyone else in this role.

Frank (Langella) is a man living out his twilight years on a homestead. In the past, he was an accomplished jewel thief who’s biggest stint in prison was over tax evasion. His family is scattered, his children both resenting his inability to stay with the times and feeling an obligation to look after him. Hunter (James Marsden) brings him a new model caretaker robot, named simply Robot (Peter Sarsgaard), citing the long trips to Frank’s from the city. Frank isn’t very cooperative, he’s acutely forgetful and has that distracted anger about being told what to do and how to live by others. This is a stereotypical element of dementia, I think. Not sure how accurate it is.

Madison (Liv Tyler), his daughter, travels as part of her work and seems to be nominally against robot labor. This is one of the subtle, well executed little hints of world-building. The point of this isn’t necessarily to talk about robot labor vs. human labor, an issue that surely faces us in the future, but to set up a world that Frank no longer understands. This is not dissimilar from my grandparents and the “iPod” generation and the technology gap, and surrounding issues, that exists now. It’s just an excuse, I think, for there to be robots. But it doesn’t feel cheap or strictly unnecessary since it represents that crucial part of what it’s like to get old while the world leaves you behind. Maybe my generation won’t have the same problems keeping up as every other one has in the 20th century, but the future of Robot & Frank is a mundane one, where the wonder of the internet and communications tech in general has given way to robots.

The stuff with the kids is laced into the more central story of Frank’s relationship with Robot.

Because Frank’s issues are caused by a lack of focus, the film explores the idea that keeping up with things, having projects and hobbies, keeps some of the shit that happens to old brains at bay. I’m not sure, again, if this is accurate. A lot of this movie feels like it’s working off a colloquial understanding of the challenges of elderdom and since I am not close with my older relatives (and they aren’t really that old yet; all in their 60’s), I don’t have much firsthand experience with this. Still, it seems true that becoming listless starts to have a serious effect on your ability to comprehend your reality intelligibly. That seems to be an issue no matter what age you are, really. So I could relate to the idea that “retirement” is killing Frank.

Robot and Frank don’t get off on the right foot. Robot is there to organize Frank’s life in a healthy and productive way, but Frank has Old Man Stubborn. Then he realizes that Robot has the technical capacity to pick locks and help him case joints. Now he can do what he loves again, and Robot eventually agrees that limited burglarizing might actually be good for Frank.

So the stage is set for delightful buddy humor, and the movie pours from that tap just enough so that you care about both characters and their friendship. The restraint present keeps the whole thing honest instead o dopey, but it’s also the set-up for a pretty harsh reality check that occurs later. This is getting into why I think the movie doesn’t fully work. I’m not sure, however, if I feel that way because it really doesn’t work or because it doesn’t work the way I wish it did. Writing these usually helps me figure that kinda shit out if you haven’t noticed.

The color palette of the film is intentionally washed out.

The impetus for Frank’s new lease on life is mostly the attention of Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) who runs the local library. Recently, books have come back into style and the newest generation of rich hipsters want to preserve the “feel” of libraries. I guess they plan on turning the place into a fucking Indigo. I may not be old, but I find that just as offensive as Frank does. This is the way the movie works off of the indignation of re-appropriation. That fancy phrase just means the feeling you get, old people especially, when something old or traditional is gobbled up and reimagined in some form that seems somehow lesser. Basically, the indignation of re-appropriation is why people hate on hipsters so much. Re-appropriation is what hipsters are all about and they make no secret of it, they celebrate it, while the rest of society quietly does the same thing but calls it something else.

Anyways. The fulcrum of the library takeover is Jake (Jeremy Strong), a man that is identifiably a hipster douche even to the people of 2012. Frank hates the fucker, and so do we, so he decides he’s going to rob him and his wife BLIND. With Robot’s help! Jake has an irrational suspicion and dislike of Frank once Frank refuses to smile at his constant condescension and therefore Frank can’t get away as clean as he likes.

It seems like the big conflict in the movie is going to be Frank vs. Jake and it’ll all end with Frank getting in trouble with the law. It sort of goes that way, after a few interludes, and we get semi-comical scenes like Frank and Robot’s getaway car escape.

Frank is smart and thorough, but his memory fails him.

The harsh reality I mentioned is that all of this is sort of an illusion. Frank’s last hurrah is fun and all, but it’s all just vapor because he’s a man trapped by his own illusions of himself. It turns out Jennifer is his fucking wife, whom he simply can’t remember. You assume she’s just some off-screen character the whole movie because, while she’s mentioned, her presence is never felt. While it’s a weird plot twist that at first feels incredibly silly and unbelievable, there are two things that save it and make it resonate.

First, it underscores the sadness of Frank with the humor and camaraderie we’ve been allowed to enjoy. Being old is both funny and sad, right? That’s the theme of the movie, whatever is said about Robot and Frank’s friendship having no off button (it does). Frank is trying to impress a woman he can’t remember is his wife. This is tragic and reverses the “heroic old timer” narrative that the movie has been slowly deconstructing.

Second, Susan Sarandon’s performance just ties the whole thing together. She’s a great character to begin with, spouting subtle and occasional bits of contemporary speech so that you actually believe her as a 50-60 year old woman who would have been an adult around now. She says “cool” in a way that feels like how we say it, basically, and not like an older person trying to be hip. That’s just the window dressing though. Sarandon’s attitude toward Frank is never entirely clear and always infused with complex emotions. At first you think maybe she’s just socially awkward or skittish, but the reveal that she is his forgotten wife just propels her character.

So back to the actual Robot stuff.

Where things get bleak is in how the movie ends up treating Robot. Robot insists it is a thing, not a person, more than once in the movie. While an audience might expect to come to a feeling of identification with Robot, maybe even anthropomorphism, the movie is only interested in using that to coerce you. Much like Robot eventually admits to expressing a fear of having his memory erased in order to manipulate Frank, the movie eventually admits that Robot is really just a thing and not a character we should have an emotional bond with. An attachment to? Maybe. But Frank’s attachment to Robot is shown to not only be fallacious in terms of Robot’s existence as an appliance, but also part of his selfish self-delusion. He “needs” Robot, and Robot is his “friend”, only to the extent that Robot is a tool to rob people and shit.

This is brought home in the scene where Frank, who has lost parts of his memory, erases Robot’s. This is a move that only makes sense as the film acknowledges the disparity between Frank’s reality (which becomes ours for most of the movie) and the delusions he has been having. Emotionally, this feels like a punch in the face as Frank of all people should value memory. But again, the movie says, Robot is not a person and his memories have no value.

This is where things get really bleak. After his hurrah, Frank ends up in a home where he is visited by all of his family. He sees that other people have their own robots of the same model as the one his son gave him. He doesn’t seem to have his own. Therefore, the thematic statement seems to be that it’s family and humans that matter and not appliances. The movie then goes to credits where we see footage of the various robots at high stages of articulation and development. This bit seems to be pro-robot, but only as appliances. Robot & Frank only flirts with the personhood issues associated with artificial intelligence, more philosophical than anything else for now, to get us to care about the construction long enough that the deconstruction can work.

It’s a really weird thing to do. I’m not sure if it’s brilliant, but it might be, I just know I don’t like it. This has to do with my own views on machine intelligence, personhood, etc so it doesn’t really affect how I see Robot & Frank‘s quality as a film. I guess it works, in the end, because I’m sitting here thinking about it and still feel shocked by having one so thoroughly put over on me. I guess, also, that it would have been easy to make a buddy movie about an old man and a robot on whacky adventures, without saying anything deeper than “friendship is important!”. Instead, they crafted something a lot more thoughtful and, in the process, unpleasant.

But it does work. There’s nothing inconsistent about it, now that I’ve sat and thought about it for an hour. I just don’t particularly love the message. I always like a movie that inspires this sort of analysis and would inspire some great conversation… if anyone else had seen it.

I think a lot of people would be sort of angry about the ending. Some might even postulate that Frank imagined the whole thing. That what we see the whole movie is his delusions while he’s hopelessly lost in his mushy brain, living out his days in a retirement home full of robots that inspire his fantasies. There’s a cuddliness to this that is undone by the end, like fucking Old Yeller or something.

Still kinda wish it would have ended on a note that reflects this image.

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