It can be difficult to craft convincing science fiction on a low budget, and director Jake Schreier takes the smart route by working on a small scale in his debut feature Robot & Frank. The movie is set in “the near future,” which looks almost exactly like the present with minor variations, most notably the presence of robot helpers to aid humans with basic tasks. The robot of the title is one such helper, a “healthcare aide” who looks like a children’s toy from the 1980s and speaks (as voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) in the recognizable soothing tones of movie robots from 2001: A Space Odyssey through Moon.
The robot is brought into the home of the other title character (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar living in upstate New York and suffering from increasing memory loss. Frank’s well-meaning but frustrated son (James Marsden) buys him the robot so that Frank will have someone (or something) to look after his well-being while he’s alone in his house. At first Frank is resentful of his chipper new companion, who insists that Frank take up gardening and start eating healthy, but soon he realizes that he can manipulate the robot to his own ends. He starts teaching it to help him revive his burglary career, under the guise of developing a new hobby to aid his cognitive functions.
Despite its sci-fi trappings, Robot & Frank is a low-key, sedate story about aging and obsolescence, with a strong performance from Langella as a man trying to hold onto his memory and the world he once knew (a prominent subplot involves Frank hitting on a local librarian played by Susan Sarandon, who’s overseeing the complete digitization of all the printed books in the library). The movie is sweet and agreeably unambitious, derailed only by an egregious third-act twist. Even that unfortunate contrivance can’t irreparably damage the pleasant tone of the movie, though, and it wraps up in a calm, satisfying way that suggests a future aided by robots will be neither utopia nor dystopia, just the same human struggle it’s always been.