Memory Almost Full, by Rita Cannon
Set in the near future, Robot & Frank tells the story of Frank (Frank Langella), a retired jewel thief living out his golden years alone in a house in Cold Spring, New York. His son Hunter (James Marsden) visits periodically, and his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) video-phones from her do-gooder job in Turkmenistan. Frank amuses himself by flirting with the attractive neighborhood librarian (Susan Sarandon), and occasionally shoplifting bars of soap from a local boutique. Other than that, he kind of bops around at home a lot. He’s also slipping into the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s – Hunter regularly has to remind him that his favorite restaurant is long closed, and that the reason Mom’s not around is because they’ve been divorced for fifteen years. Worried about his father, but reluctant to put him in a home, Hunter buys him a robot programmed to help with household chores and encourage healthier living (the robot is big on hiking and gardening). But it doesn’t take long for Frank to realize that Robot (Frank never gives him a real name) can easily be manipulated into helping with the one activity Frank is still passionate about – theft.
The heart of the film, as its title would suggest, is the relationship between Frank and Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). I probably don’t need to tell you that Frank Langella is really good in this, but he is. He’s charismatic, sympathetic, and perfectly captures the frustration and sadness of a man in possession of incredible skills – albeit ones that screwed up his family by landing him in jail a few times – who can no longer find a use for them, and who at the same time is losing the ability to relate to the world around him in the most basic ways. Initially annoyed by Robot’s presence, he comes to depend on him not physically, but emotionally. Robot is the only one who really listens to Frank, and certainly the only one he can convince to go burgling with him. One one hand, Robot serves as a passive yes man to Frank’s suggestions, but on the other, he makes Frank feel useful and needed. His children, though well-intentioned, tend to treat him as a problem, rather than a person who could teach them anything. Frank is encouraged and energized by the chance to share his wisdom with someone, even if that someone will have their memory wiped when they’re sent back to the factory.
Langella’s performance is well supported by the other actors. Jeremy Strong is especially good as the weaselly, condescending yuppie Frank targets for his first big heist. Sarandon is subtle and compelling as the librarian whose feelings for Frank are more complex than they first seem. The film’s last act feels slightly rushed, and there’s a reveal near the end that’s out of left field and, at least to me, didn’t make much sense. But over all, Robot & Frank is a intelligent, affecting character study that showcases one of the best actors of his generation.