'Robot & Frank': Langella switches on the larcenous charm ★★
"Robot & Frank" may be the oddest credit in Frank Langella's almost 60 years on stage and screen.
It is, as its title declares, about a robot. And Frank.
This sentimental comedy traffics in old age, forgetfulness, family and a robot that "feels." And it works better than it has any right to, largely through Langella's way with a curmudgeon, his force of personality.
The Frank this Frank plays is an aged retiree in upstate New York, a man living out his golden years "in the near future," when the cars have grown tinier, the phones even thinner and the local library has become an empty "museum" for books, in need of a hip makeover and young people who decide that it's cool to want to read that way again. Frank is a cranky loner who forgets that his favorite diner closed years before, that he's been divorced for 30 years and what his kids' names are, on occasion.
But he hasn't forgotten how to pick a lock. He hasn't forgotten that he did time for being "a second-story man," a jewel thief. So he makes it a habit of shoplifting something every trek he makes into town.
His son (James Marsden) is tired of worrying about that, and about the clutter Frank lives in and the weekly trips he has to make to check on dad. So he rents the guy a robot "helper." Frank isn't convinced: "That thing is going to murder me in my sleep!"
Frank resists the healthier diet the robot prepares and the exercise the robot wants him to do. Until, that is, the robot makes him see it from his point of view.
"If you die eating cheeseburgers, what happens to me?" the VGC 60L asks in Peter Sarsgaard's soothing voice. He's sort of a fussy HAL 9000 from "2001," with just a hint of needy C-3PO ("Star Wars") about him. The robot will be deemed a failure, shipped back to the factory and have its memory scrubbed. Frank's humanity gets the better of him, and he relents.
Besides, the robot can be his audience, hearing about Frank's glorious past as a thief. Heck, the robot could be his apprentice.
"Any lock can be picked," Frank teaches. When he breaks out the binoculars and floor plans, "This is what we call 'casing'" the joint.
Christopher Ford's script makes few demands for special effects and not many more demands of the players. Frank and the robot plan jobs and carry them out, and try to keep a low profile as they do. Frank reconnects with his globe-trotting daughter (Liv Tyler), who comes home to fuss over him at the worst possible time. He flirts with the soon-to-be-redundant librarian (Susan Sarandon) and crosses swords with a rude yuppie hipster (Jeremy Strong).
More could have been done with the capers, more made of the town's "pigeons" waiting for Frank and the robot to pluck their feathers — or jewels. And with the robot-human "relationship."
But Langella, interacting with that short, helmeted thing, never lets on that this is anything but real. It's more humorous than funny, more charming than truly entertaining. But "Robot & Frank" can still be savored for its human assets, especially the 74-year-old who finally gets to play a character who shares his first name.
'Robot & Frank' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language
Running time: 1:28