I was waiting in line to check out books at the library when I noticed Robot and Frank on a nearby rack displaying a dozen or so DVDs. I’m not sure if their placement there means they’re popular, or recommended, or what. I often recognize the titles but rarely see any I want to watch.
As this was one I hadn’t heard of and it involved a robot, I was interested enough to pick up the box and read the description on the back. If it had been a book, that would have been enough for me to take it home to read. But since a movie would be for the whole family to watch, I first wanted to read some reviews.
The reviews were all positive, but the next time I went to the library it was checked out. I suppose it must be relatively popular, because it was weeks before I managed to find it again (back in the regular movie stacks but set apart on a display shelf).
It’s hard to sum up briefly, which is probably a large part of what I like about it. It doesn’t fit the usual categories of Hollywood movies (not surprising since it was an indie film, distributed by studios after it won a prize at the Sundance festival).
There’s a robot but it’s not primarily a sci-fi movie. Movie robots tend to either exemplify the dangers of out-of-control technology (if Steven Spielberg makes Robopocalypse, it will be a prime example of this), or depict robots as so human-like that they desire to be treated as people (Bicentennial Man).
The robot in Robot and Frank doesn’t even have a name (he is just called Robot), and he reminds Frank that he is not alive, he is just a machine. Yet Frank, an older man who prefers books to electronic devices, ends up getting along with the robot better than he does with his grown children.
Of course, the robot is programmed to put Frank’s needs first. His grown children have their own lives, and their relationships with their father were not particularly good ones when he spend years of their childhood in prison. A former cat burglar, he can’t seem to keep from occasionally trying to steal things.
He is losing his memory, though. In the first scene he breaks into a house, only to discover, as he looks around for things to take, that he has broken into his own home. His son Hunter gets the robot to take care of Frank so Hunter doesn’t have to keep coming to visit, and to try to improve Frank’s physical and mental health.
The robot determines that Frank needs a project to focus his mind. When the robot turns out to have no built-in prohibitions on illegal activity, Frank starts planning a heist, and the robot decides that this is good for Frank’s health as long as they are careful. “They,” because the Frank teaches the robot how to pick locks.
It’s really not a movie about heists, either, however. There are no car chases (there is one getaway but no chase) and no shootouts. The viewer sees both how much enjoyment Frank gets from planning the heist, yet how little benefit from the actual take, and of course there is the constant reminder of how his past life of crime (mis)shaped his family life.
Robot and Frank has both funny and serious sides to it, touching on issues dealing with aging and loss of independence, family relationships, and of course the effects of technology. Besides the robot, there is also a project underway to replace the printed materials at the local library with electronic technology.
Unlike some movies which try to push a particular message, Robot and Frank is more about just getting you to think about it. Director Jake Schreier tells where the idea for the movie came from and what he was trying to do. “We’re more just raising questions about technology will do to our relationships in the future than necessarily trying to say any one thing.”