‘Robot & Frank’ doesn’t always compute

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There’s a reason that “Robot & Frank” isn’t called “Robot and Frank.” Ampersands mean never having to say you’re certain. “Robot & Frank” isn’t sure whether it’s a comedy or drama, buddy movie or sci-fi fantasy, family melodrama or social satire. What is certain is that it’s a vehicle for Frank Langella (as Frank), a sadly underutilized Susan Sarandon (as Frank’s romantic interest), and a pitch-perfect Peter Sarsgaard (voicing the robot) to show how effortless acting can seem when the actors involved are as good as those three are.

“Robot & Frank” is set just slightly in the future. This makes the production’s accountant happy, since there’s no need to budget for special costumes or props. It makes the scriptwriter, Christopher D. Ford, even happier, since he can plausibly provide Frank with a robotic personal assistant. Having looked to the technological future for one title character, Ford gets the other from the cinematic past. Frank is a high-class jewel thief — an occupation far more commonly found onscreen than off.

Correction: Frank’s a retired high-class jewel thief. He has the robot because he lives alone and is increasingly subject to memory lapses. He didn’t want any help, but his son (James Marsden) insisted. There’s something about Sarsgaard’s slightly prissy voice that makes it ideal for the robot. The little guy quickly grows on the viewer. Frank keeps grumping about having him around, though. “You have got to be kidding me,” Langella complains. “I’m not this pathetic. I don’t need to be spoon-fed by some goddam robot.” Then he realizes that one man’s spoon-feeder could be another’s accomplice — and Frank is that man. With the robot’s assistance, he gets ready to resume a life of crime.

Part of the appeal of jewel thievery is that it’s (ostensibly) a victimless crime: The victims are rich people with insurance. So putting your hero in this line of work is a narrative cheat. You can root for someone breaking the law without feeling guilty. A worse kind of narrative cheat goes on here, though. Frank is supposed to be in a state of mental decline — otherwise the plot makes no sense. Yet Langella is so robust, and the mental lapses seem so trivial and intermittent, that it seems as if he’s just pretending. Which is how you’d expect a crafty recidivist jewel thief to behave, no? Except there’s then an example of memory failure so basic, and heartbreaking, it makes the rest of the movie seem nonsensical.

It’s a great little plot twist — but if the viewer reflects on it for even a moment, it twists the rest of the movie out of any shape recognizable as emotional reality. Since this is a movie aimed at older viewers, meant to identify with Frank — or at least his grown kids (a vacuous Liv Tyler plays his daughter) — that’s really asking for trouble. Anyone who has been exposed to even the slightest bit of senile dementia will see how much of a fantasy “Robot & Frank” is — and the biggest fantasy isn’t the robot.