It seems like once a year or so an Alzheimer’s movie comes along and knocks me for a loop. I don’t know what it is; I’ve never had any personal, real-life experience with the condition or its unfortunate sufferers, but there’s ripe material for crafting warm and moving stories which invariably end with me in tears. In the last few years I have been devastated by films such as Away From Her and Barney’s Version, and while Robot and Frank is certainly comparable, it’s a lighter, less harrowing take on a tragic side of aging, and ultimately results in a much more enjoyable experience.
Frank Langella plays Frank, a divorced senior living a life of solitude in rural New York. Between visits and video calls from his children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) concerned about his seemingly deteriorating mental state, Frank fills his time with visits to the local library to flirt with librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), and by shoplifting decorative soaps from the store occupying the former site of his favourite restaurant. He is a man of the past, and his little moments of defiance in the face of change establish his character early, so when Hunter (Marsden) arrives with a new robot caregiver, Frank is understandably offended.
As much as Frank’s memory regarding the day to day seems to be fading, his former ‘profession’ as a cat burglar remains at the front of his mind, and the robot’s insistence on finding a project to keep him mentally engaged opens a window of opportunity for Frank to focus his mind and retreat back to the glory days of his youth. The planning and execution of heists sees a charming relationship forming between Frank and his robot companion, complemented by a sweet potential romance and stark moments of sadness.
There’s a clever subtext running through Robot and Frank as well, commenting on the loss of personality in the digital age, and the disposable nature of modern life. The more we come to rely on technology for everything, from our reading material to our aged care, the less we ourselves are practically capable of, giving rise to a generation of privileged, ironic, but purposeless people (‘yuppies’ as Frank calls them). What Robot and Frank highlights is not just the fragility, but also the value of a mind filled with life experience and skills. There’s no substitute for the complex intelligence of our brains, and even the most sophisticated technology has more to learn from us.
Robot and Frank feels like a film aimed at an older generation, but there is so much to enjoy for anyone who might be occasionally frustrated by our cynical modern world. There’s a great balance of laughs, romance and sadness with a fun sci-fi twist, right down to the subtle Star Wars reference.