In recent years, Sundance has been hit with a handful of smart science fiction films tackling large themes within an extremely limited scope. From the $7,000 “Primer” to the $5 million “Moon,” their respective filmmakers managed to put forth some interesting ideas without being hindered creatively by their minimal budgets. Last year’s breakout, “Another Earth,” may have suffered a bit from its great premise being pushed perhaps too far into the background of an otherwise standard grief drama. But it’s always a compromise between the resources that are available and how much of the hardware must actually be shown onscreen to create a believable world set in an alternate present or distant future. Arriving at a decision on what to cut and what needs to be shown must be agony for those films hoping to achieve any kind of scope. But in the best cases, smart filmmakers can use these restrictions to their advantage helping the films get their ideas across in the leanest way possible. This year’s sci-fi Sundance entry was “Robot & Frank,” a high concept, low-key heist film set in the near future.
Frank (Frank Langella) is a former jewel thief living out his retirement in upstate New York. He has two grown children who worry about him and a wife that left him long ago presumably over the fallout from a six-year jail stint for an earlier burglary. He makes regular trips to the library (practically a deserted museum for when people used to read physical books) and visits attractive librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), but for the most part, he leads a solitary life. He can also barely take care of himself: his home is a constant mess, he continues to steal trinkets from a local shop and appears to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He is occasionally confused when certain recollections start to slip away, like the fact that his son Hunter (James Marsden) is no longer in college or that his favorite restaurant closed years ago. Because he refuses to go to an assisted living facility, Hunter instead brings him a caretaker robot — voiced by Peter Sarsgaard in the calming emotionless voice used by nearly every onscreen artificial intelligence since HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — referred to only as Robot (and designed by the same studio that made Daft Punk’s spacey helmets).
At first, Frank is incredibly resistant to the machine. He doesn’t want to be helped and as older people tend to do, probably feels distrustful of new technology in general. But fairly quickly Frank realizes Robot is not only an asset to keeping him fed and cleaning up the house but he’s also a friend. With an improved diet and more active lifestyle, Frank starts feeling vital again and decides to use his new friend to plan a little heist. After a hip designer (Jeremy Strong) decides to renovate the library into an augmented reality experience, Frank decides that he’ll be the perfect mark for his robbery. But his plans are complicated when his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) comes to take care of him. Not motivated by any kind of financial reward, Frank seems to keep stealing just for something to do, to keep his mind active. And so we’re not really supposed to care that much about the actual robbery because it’s not connected to anything consequential. Boiled down to its essentials, it’s a story about an old man resistant to change who accepts it early on and uses it to his advantage.
While the premise certainly makes it stand out from the sea of dysfunctional family dramas, a cute idea alone doesn’t quite cut it. In the end it’s just not funny enough to be completely entertaining and the sentiment feels tacked on. Instead of being built up from the emotional ground floor, the movie appears to have been birthed premise first with resonance to be filled in later. Langella shows up just ready to crush it but needs better material to work with. There is a big reveal towards the end of the film that feels cheap and unearned and an interesting parallel between Frank’s Alzheimer's and his resistance to resetting Robot but it’s hardly explored. As far as the technology goes, the phones are clear and thin and video chats are voice activated but otherwise could be set in modern day. There are of course, lots of films set in the future that use minimal upgrades to indicate the time period but the details here just don’t seem as thought through. It’s as if the filmmakers just threw up their arms and said, “We thought it would be funny to watch a buddy movie with an old guy and a robot.”
It’s only the first feature from director Jake Schreier, former keyboardist in the band Francis and the Lights (who also compose the score) and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford (who expanded it from his 2003 short film), and it seems to have connected with audiences at the festival. It was picked up a few days ago by Sony Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films. But watching it, there were just too many missed opportunities. Had the film drawn the connection for the audience that if you're a young person now then Frank could actually be you in the near future, it might have resonated a little more. Instead we get a diversion about a jewel heist and the police closing in. While it may be unfair to compare the novice filmmakers to a creative visionary like Spike Jonze, his robot short “I’m Here” packed much more of an emotional wallop into a tight 30 minutes than this film did in 90. It just goes to highlight what’s missing here: the reason for telling this story. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the Sundance Film Festival.