*Robot & Frank (PG-13)
You might see the trailer for Robot & Frank and think, "Well, Frank Langella's career is over." The film screams "cutsie," with Langella's character a daffy old man, the robot a sassy sidekick, and both of them exchanging eye-rolling one-liners. The old man will hate the robot, then he'll love it, then he'll die and everyone will be sad but remember him warmly.
Give credit to first-time feature filmmakers Jake Schreier and Christopher D. Ford, because only part of that prognosis is true. Frank (Langella) is a retired cat burglar who lives on his own but has increasing dementia that makes him do things such as rob his own home. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), makes a five-hour drive to visit as often as he can, but it's at the expense of his own family. And Frank's daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), travels for a living in an unspecified occupation. So Hunter buys Frank a helper robot — the film is set in the "near future" — who will do his chores, enforce a regular schedule, make Frank eat right and be his companion.
Frank hates the robot, then he loves it. "Fuck this shit," he says when the robot (who is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard but remains unnamed) insists that they're going to start a garden. "I'm not that pathetic," he tells Hunter. But Hunter has given the robot a password that makes it impossible to turn off, so Frank's stuck with it. When he sees how tidy his place is and how well he's eating, Frank starts to warm up. It's when Frank discovers that the robot can be taught how to pick locks and help him conduct surveillance on possible robbery sites, however, that he really falls for it. After all, the robot encouraged him to pick up a hobby, so why not return to one he's familiar with?
Drawing Frank as a salty-tongued ex-con helps cut down the film's saccharine levels tremendously. The tone is light but there aren't really any jokes (except maybe for a scene of bot-to-bot small talk that definitely registers as cutsie), just natural conversations — at least, as natural as you can get between humans and a machine. Frank even has a love interest (Susan Sarandon), a librarian who's forced to contend with the future-is-now herself when a new owner wants to overhaul the library and bring it into the digital world. Their attraction is very gently and realistically alluded to and not in an embarrassing see-the-seniors-flirt! manner; the main relationship here is between Frank and his aide.
Better, Robot & Frank soon turns into a bit of a crime drama, with Frank doing a couple of jobs that attract attention. There is a bit of sentimentality in these last chapters, with the robot becoming a piece of evidence. Another quibble is that it's not exactly clear why the film ends the way it does, especially considering that it adds to the treacle. Considering the Lifetime movie it threatened to be, however, this bit of sugar is tolerably sweet.