Movie Review: Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank (2012)
Director: Jake Schreier
Writer: Christopher Ford (screenplay)

Reviewed by Rory Grant

What is it that makes us human?  Our memories? Our loves and relationships?  Our work?  Our ability to plan for the future?  Robot & Frank explores these themes through the eyes of Frank, a retired and reclusive cat burglar, and his unwelcome robot companion.

Set in the near future, we begin in a situation that is all too real for many older people in our communities – Frank (Frank Langella) is caught in a tug of war between his two adult children over his care, while he desperately clings to independence and struggles to deny to himself and others the (not so early) signs of dementia.  His overworked son commutes from the city in weekends to visit.  He brings Frank a robot carer. His idealistic, globe-trotting daughter cries foul.  Frank himself is humiliated and put upon until he realises that Robot’s dexterity and non-existent moral compass can be put to (not so legal) use.

This is where the story really picks up and takes us in unexpected directions.  It’s a rollicking good ride and we develop a real connection with the old scoundrel and his deadpan sidekick.  But the real beauty of this film is its deft hand.  We’re in the future, but technology has not made everything wonderful, nor terrible. It’s normal.  Real.  True.  This deft hand is more than welcome in dealing with an incredibly difficult subject.  Frank is a noble and romantic rogue, but he is losing his fight with dementia.  His mind slips at the worst moments, and his attempts to cover up come across as cruel and manipulative.  One moment he is in gruff denial mode, standing up his date. The next he is playing it up, using his age and infirmity as a lever to drag others into his plans. You’re never left entirely sure which is which.  Frank’s dementia is not one-dimensional.  This is no sugar coated nostalgia trip, nor is it patronising.  It is subtle and intricate.  It’s evocative.  It’s moving.  It’s true.

Robot is a mirror to Frank’s soul.  “I’m not really alive, Frank.  I don’t care if my memory is erased.”  Robot & Frank start out awkward and uncomfortable, but in the end, Frank wants to hold onto Robot’s memory as tightly as his own. It ends with a tender embrace.

I loved this film.  It’s safely in my personal top ten.  It is by turns touching, funny, real, layered and deep.  It’s even quixotic.  That’s right, quixotic!  Look it up if you don’t believe me!  Frank is a bemused Quixote, seeing the world through different eyes, while Robot’s Sancho Panza takes it all in his stride.  The two of them caught throughout in the enchanting orbit of Susan Sarandon’s Dulcinea.

It’s a great watch in its own right, and it would make a wonderful, affirming and challenging talking point for any community or family or congregation who is having to wrestle with dementia in their midst.  What does it mean to be human when you’re losing your mind?  What does it mean to be a husband, father, mother, sister, friend when you can’t reliably join up the dots, or behave in the way that people expect?  What does it mean to be a child of God?  These are not questions that we easily ask. Perhaps Robot & Frank can help us start. (Note: Frank is inclined to swear a bit).