Don’t be misled by the title of this bittersweet gem. Robot & Frank may be set in the near future, but it’s no silly sci-fi fairy tale. Whimsical and poignant by turns, the film never goes gooey at its emotional center or bogs down in heavy dramatic weather. How could it, when this spare story of aging and fading memory stars Frank Langella, the old lion of stage and screen who dominates every role he undertakes in the winter of his acting career? Robot & Frank is very nearly a one-man show, a master interacting with a machine.
First-time director Jake Schreier, graduating from commercials and music videos, shows surprising smarts and maturity by not getting in Langella’s way — and by celebrating, sans irony or excess of sentiment, the fundamental human need for connection and purpose.
Rusticating in a pleasant old country house, onetime ace second-story man Frank has grown so discombobulated he wakes up in the dark, burgling his own digs. Langella’s still-powerful physicality is thwarted by aimlessness: His handsome features are going a little soft, infected by terminal boredom. About all that anchors this increasingly forgetful gentleman in the here-and-now are the friendly town librarian (Susan Sarandon) and occasional forays into small-beans shoplifting. And now all his beloved books, tattered relics of the print information age, are being digitalized, while the nice lady who tracked down tasty tomes for him is being replaced by Mr. Darcy, an ambulatory talking box. (Somewhere Jane Austen giggles.)