The premise of Jake Schreier’s intermittently enjoyable comedy Robot & Frank initially suggests something of a neglectful offspring’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. In “the near future,” robot butlers are available to help the elderly and infirm (or the plain lazy) with household chores and other jobs. One such creation is purchased by Hunter Weld (James Marsden) for his pa Frank (Frank Langella), a grouchy, isolated and confused man who lives alone in Cold Spring, New York. Frank - a former cat burglar who still steals, on occasion, from a gift store (it seems almost a reflex action) - initially disdains the presence of his new companion whom he labels “a death machine.” But Frank begins to change his mind when he sees the potential of Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him out with some burglarising schemes.
What Schreier fashions from this set-up is, in essence, an old-fashioned buddy movie, one that brings sci-fi touches into a domestic sitcom scenario. Alas, while crisply edited and boasting some funny and appealing moments, the movie is not everything it could've been. Admirably, Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford attept to avoid cuteness by having Frank warm to Robot only when he begins to see him as an aid to criminal activity. But, at the same time, the movie's rather relaxed attitude to burglary - acceptable if perpetrated against unctuous yuppies, apparently - leaves a sour taste. The film starts smart(ish) but gets sillier as it goes along, and by the time Frank and Robot are outwitting cops and going "on the lam" it's possible that you may start experiencing Short Circuit flashbacks. Moreover, Schreier and Ford aren't above crudely striving for "depth" by comparing Frank's "confusion" – the film stops short of calling it Alzheimer's Disease – to the possibility of Robot having its memory wiped.
The performances from the distinguished cast are, for the most part, nicely pitched. The expert Langella can do disgruntled like no other and the most amusing and engaging episodes in the movie are the early ones that bounce his annoyance off of Robot's calm professionalism. ("I'm not a robot. I'm a health-care aid," the machine insists, and Sarsgaard's cool, measured, Malkovich-esque tones are perfect for the delivery of such a statement.) Liv Tyler is also effective as Frank's meddling daughter Madison, and it's lovely, as ever, to see Susan Sarandon on screen, bringing her customary radiance to her too-minor role as Jennifer, the local librarian who's a possible romantic opportunity for Frank. But Robot & Frank begins to lose bite as it progresses, finally taking an unnecessarily icky turn into cosy family values territory and lifting a sadly unconvincing late twist directly from Nicholas Fackler's little-seen Lovely, Still (2008). It's a fitting conclusion, in a way: this is a movie that's so keen on larceny it ends up committing it.
UK release: 8th March.