Many science-fiction storytellers worry about robots becoming self-aware and destroying us. The moment the artificial beings attain real intelligence, these tales posit, they'll realize we made them too smart and too strong for our own good, and they'll wonder why the superior beings should be relegated to working assembly lines and doing mundane repetitive tasks when they could be ruling the planet.
In the "near future" of Robot & Frank, the feature debut from director Jake Schreier, we haven't quite reached the point of HAL-9000s and T-1000s murdering the nearest humans: The worst you can expect from the film's titular robot is that it might make you eat your fruits and vegetables, use guilt as a manipulative tool and start assisting the elderly in petty crime.
The petty criminal is Frank (Frank Langella), a "second-story man" — the kind of thief who specializes in getting into buildings via the unsecured upper floors — who is long since out of the game. He's a career crook, who's done his stretches in prison but also made enough over his years of thievery to raise a family and still have wads of cash stashed in his house to carry him through these final years.
In retirement, stealing is now mostly an absent-minded hobby: He satisfies his irrepressibly sticky fingers by pocketing tchotchkes and trinkets at a shop in the quaint New York town he now calls home.
He's also slipping slowly toward senility, however. He forgets who people are, where he is and when he is; he's reliant on his son Hunter (James Marsden), whose weekly visits keep the house from becoming unlivable.
As a compromise with Frank's unwillingness to be put in a home, Hunter shows up one day with the latest in home health care, the VGC-60S. The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard and given motion by Rachael Ma, looks like a diminutive Apollo astronaut, and it quickly gets on the wrong side of the crotchety Frank with its attempts to get him to live more healthfully and engage with the world more.
But when it comes to hobbies, Frank has no interest in gardening; he decides it would be more fun to teach the robot to pick locks. It's the first step on a slippery slope to robot delinquency as Frank remakes his robot butler into a mostly willing robot accomplice.
That sounds like the recipe for some madcap adventure, like a geriatric spin on the '80s robot-goes-AWOL comedy Short Circuit. But Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford take a restrained alternative path. The comedy here is subdued, and tempered with real poignancy. Frank's cantankerous grumpy old man shtick isn't just for comic effect: It's the byproduct of the terrifying helplessness of realizing you no longer control your body and mind as completely as you once did.
The story folds in a surprising number of serious themes without ever letting them clash with the lighter touches involved in Frank and the robot's heists. Schreier sensitively blends in thoughts about reliance on technology and ethical questions about how we treat artificial beings, using Frank's own awareness of the disposability of the robot and its easily erased memory to reflect his own anxieties about his own existence and decline.
The world Frank knew is slipping away from him, not just because of memory loss but owing to the march of time and progress. He's the last person in town who even uses the local library — both for books and to flirt with a librarian played by Susan Sarandon — and he loses even that tie to the past when a smug developer removes the books and reimagines the library as a "library experience" for nostalgia-obsessed yuppies.
The key to making all of this come together is Langella, who effortlessly conveys the complexity of Frank's anger and confusion even when playing a scene for laughs. While the robot is always quick to point out that what seem like personality and reasoning are simply functions of his programming, the bond that develops between them is very real, at least for Frank.
Langella, the only visible human presence onscreen for much of the movie, ends up being as instrumental to giving the robot life as Sarsgaard and Ma. Similarly, this lifeless robot is the key to Frank's finding the spark of his own life, even as it fades.