Robot & Frank

In theaters.

Despite the whole robot-home-healthcare-worker premise, nothing about Robot & Frank feels particularly far-fetched or sci-fi. It’s quite easy to imagine a sophisticated but narrowly focused robot like the unnamed one here. In fact, I’m quite certain that that kind of thing is already in development, in one form or another. Christopher Ford’s gentle, domestic screenplay barely qualifies as speculative fiction.

And that, I think, is why it works. Robot & Frank isn’t sci-fi (nothing against sci-fi, for the record). It’s a thoughtful, playful look at how we relate to technology—and to one another—right now, not in the future. The human performances are delightfully expressive, and the robot honestly isn’t, though that doesn’t prevent us from growing fond of it, which is sort of the point. As an examination of how people map our own emotions onto other entities, Robot finds one of the shrewdest, most subtle takes I’ve ever seen.

But I’m getting ahead of things. Frank Langella plays Frank, an aging former jewel thief living alone on the outskirts of a small New England town. He has memory loss and a mild, creeping dementia, possibly the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, but to the exasperation of his long-suffering son, Hunter (James Marsden), he refuses to move into any kind of nursing home. At wit’s end, Hunter instead brings him a robot home healthcare worker (voiced with perfect unnatural placidity by Peter Sarsgaard). At first, Frank isn’t happy about his robot—it embarrasses him with the machine trails after him when he visits the kind local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon)—but eventually he realizes that the robot is programmed only to keep him healthy and mentally stimulated; it has no particular guidelines on following the law. So when Frank informs the robot that planning a small heist would make a much better hobby than the gardening it’s pushing, the robot willingly goes along with the plan, and Frank, despite himself, becomes rather fond of the thing.

The movie’s design of the robot is perfect in that it’s not an obviously endearing object. It looks like a small squat astronaut, with no face to speak of, only an opaque visored helmet, and Sarsgaard gives it a voice just a hairbreadth away from that of the infamous HAL 9000. But the sight of the robot tending its garden or following Frank into a darkened building with a black cloak thrown incongruously around its “shoulders” is weirdly endearing. It’s hard not to be charmed by the robot’s persistence in getting Frank to eat healthy foods and exercise, or its dogged advocacy of routine, or, in a quietly surreal scene, its inability to make small talk with Jennifer’s library robot, despite her push that it do so, because, after all, neither robot was programmed to make small talk with another robot.

It’s a droll scene, but it underlines one of themes of the film: Robots do what they’re programmed to do. We read the robot’s persistence in caring for Frank as patience, even tenderness—and Frank eventually experiences it as such—but it’s programming. Robot & Frank is unsentimental about the emotional indifference of technology but quite sentimental about the human need to overlook that indifference, to become deeply attached to our cars or our phones or even our vacuum cleaners (I’ve heard names given to all of those). We happily imagine them as our steadfast friends, or conversely, we imagine that they’re plotting against us. We anthropomorphize inanimate objects almost as easily as we do our pets.

Watching the fable of Robot & Frank play out, I was reminded of an old Ikea ad directed by Spike Jonze. (You can easily find it on YouTube, if you’re interested.) A woman replaces her lamp, setting the old one by the curb for pickup. There’s no dialogue, just an acutely mournful soundtrack, slow zooms on the discarded thing sitting abandoned in the rain, and “lamp’s-eye” views into the woman’s apartment, where the new lamp shines, warm and dry. And just when you’re almost ready to burst into tears, a man walks into frame and says, without preamble: “Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you’re crazy. It has no feelings, and the new one is much better.”

That ad is a shock, making you feel a little foolish and defensive. Robot & Frank ultimately makes a similar point, but it’s much more sympathetic to our need to feel for the robot and to think of it as Robot-with-a-capital-R. Robot may not be human, but Frank is, and we are, and our pointless affection for that awkward little appliance is, in a counterintuitive way, evidence of that humanity.