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In high school, when other kids were drinking, doing drugs, and presumably, getting laid, my friends and I would spend our Saturday nights sneaking into the concrete innards and unlocked guest rooms of hotels. We wouldn’t steal anything—maybe a few pay-per-view movies and some phone calls. What we were chasing was the thrill of being somewhere we shouldn’t, and the electric charge of trust and shared idiocy that flowed between my friends and I. That was friendship at its most vital and exhilarating, the kind of firefly that becomes increasingly difficult to capture as we grow older.
The 2012 film Robot & Frank dares to imagine a future where this isn’t the case. Managing the almost impossible task of mashing up the family drama, sic-fi, comedy, and heist genres into one satisfying and stunningly assured whole, the real subject of first-time director Jake Schreier’s film is whether the intimacy and ineffable magic of real connection is even possible in the ultra-modern world. With its view of technology as a potential cure for rather than cause of human loneliness, Robot & Frank would make an inspired double feature with Spike Jonze’s more celebrated Her. Like most art worth your time, heart, and dollar, both films are about the triumph of love at its most unlikely.
For all its fantastical qualities, the story it tells, set sometime in the future in a rambling old house in Cold Spring, New York, feels remarkably truthful and down-to-earth. Frank, a cranky bastard of an old man whose bouts of confusion and memory loss only serve to make him less pleasant, is given a robot helper by his exasperated, fed-up son. Though it calls itself a healthcare aid, the thing is more like an annoying nudge of a plug-in butler, making healthy meals and cleaning Frank’s filthy house.
It’s a situation Frank finds all but intolerable until the one-time jewel thief and self-described “second story man” figures something out: the robot was not programed with a moral compass, and after a little practice, its surprisingly nimble fingers can do wonders with a set of lock picks. And so Frank’s healthcare regimen takes a felonious, and highly successful turn, with him and the robot casing houses and boosting baubles from the obnoxious yuppies moving to town from the city, activities that soon gain the attention of local authorities.
Any expectation that this is some sweet, indie charmer should be immediately assuaged by the presence of Langella. This is not Art Carney in Going in Style or Wilfred Brimley shilling oatmeal—this is vampire freaking Nixon! For the extent of his nearly 50-year career, Langella has proudly held the crown as America’s least “cute” actors, a passionate and calculating dynamo more interested in asserting his will than engendering affection. His Frank is ferocious in his desire to not live his last years as a patsy, and he’s given the perfect foil in the robot, voiced with stern compassion by Peter Sarsgaard.
Together this odd couple build a relationship based on respect, intellectual and physical engagement, and fun—the same sorts of things that made my high school Saturday nights at the Sheraton so charged with wickedness and joy. When Frank and the robot finally exchange an embrace, police pounding at the door, it is an absurd and honest reminder that those kinds of connections remain possible for all us, as long as we don’t mind sneaking in the dark, flashlights ablaze, searching for them.