Set "in the near future", Robot & Frank is an admirably understated and mature look at the potential implications of technological advancement that wisely steers clear of any 'robot turns evil' clichés. Jake Schreier's directorial debut is also bolstered by a magnificent lead performance by Frank Langella, although little thought has been spent on the often inadequate characterisation outside of the titular pairing.
The effortlessly emotive and evocative Langella tackles the role of Frank, a retired ex con suffering from dementia whose son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a 'healthcare aid' robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to provide him with mental stimulation and physical therapy. "F**k that s**t" is Frank's initial response when the robot turns into a cereal killer, chucking away his favourite breakfast treats due to their health implications. Clearly there's a Gillian McKeith setting in its source code, although subsequent enemas mercifully take place off camera.
Relations start to thaw once Frank realises that the robot can assist him in a return to his cat burgling ways, especially once a local affluent yuppie incurs his wrath. But will the robot's programming allow him to commit such crimes, and can a raid on the newly modernised library impress Frank's love interest Jennifer (Susan Sarandon)?
The intrigue unfolds in a refreshingly original manner, with the focus firmly placed on the dynamic between Frank and his helper. Unexpected humour peppers their interaction, with their increased bond rather touching to watch unfold - albeit tinged with occasional moments of sadness. The close juxtaposition of the seemingly divergent themes of dementia and artificial intelligence is a thought-provoking masterstroke, leading to several surprising realisations. Not least that both entities are reliant on a memory that is not built to last.
The central scenario feels remarkably prescient, not least because the robot's design closely resembles the ASiMO creation unveiled by Honda several years ago. It's also pleasing to witness the visual and verbal treatment of the premise commendably remaining neutral on future developments and allowing the viewer to decide whether such artificial life-forms enhance or destroy society. The same debate could apply to the battery-powered 'rabbits' that now dominate many bedrooms across the globe.
Unfortunately, little effort appears to have been devoted to developing the array of supporting characters who are entangled in Frank's life. In particular, the relations with his son and daughter are wholly unconvincing, although James Marsden and Liv Tyler are blameless. Their flimsy motivations simply render them ciphers. The nadir arrives with Jake, the movie's yuppie antagonist, who is nothing more than a stereotypical nasty nerd in both look and demeanour.
Almost all the characters are thrown into the mix for a disappointing finale that sinks into soapish melodrama, but Langella's class manages to prevent proceedings from derailing before the superb final scene restores the balance. Often moving and deeply personal, Robot & Frank is a rewarding - if often underdeveloped - antidote to the plethora of loud and overblown movies that tackle the theme of technology's role in our futures.