When we imagine what the future might look like, the pictures that enter our heads typically come straight from the movies. What we don't usually think about is that before, say, "The Fifth Element" breaks out, before the unitards and the hover cars, there will be small, gradual changes. A translucent phone here, a robot health aide there; that's "the near future" found in the charmingly resonant "Robot & Frank," a genre mash-up of buddy flick, heist caper, love story, and whatever they call those movies where a senior citizen finds their twilight raison d'être. You'll notice I didn't mention science fiction; sure, the film showcases some nifty gadgets, but "Robot & Frank" is primarily concerned with the gorgeously fallible circuitry of the human heart.
In the midst of a mesmerizing third act that should yield an Oscar before too long, Frank Langella stars as Frank, who we first meet as he's breaking into a house... his own house, we learn, as he puzzles over photos of him and his family. The 70-something Frank, who lives alone in a cluttered but quaint house in the Hudson Valley town of Cold Spring, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease; he can't remember details about his kids or the closing of a beloved restaurant, but the former cat burglar can still pick a lock, and his muscle memory allows for some smooth shoplifting. The high points of his days seem to be his trips to the library, where he flirts with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the pretty, patient librarian.
Frank's dementia has left him angry and defensive when dealing with his frustrated son Hunter (James Marsden), who makes the 10-hour round trip on a weekly basis despite family obligations of his own. Hunter's solution? A robot; more specifically, the astronaut-looking VGC-60L (with the creepily calm tones of Peter Sarsgaard), who Hunter envisions will help his dad care for himself. This part you can write yourself: crabby old man butts heads with bossy computer over his love of Cap'n Crunch and his disdain for exercise until they find some common ground. In this particular case, it's an aptitude for illegal behaviors combined with a lack of morals, though in only one of them it's by factory design.
Planning robberies provides Frank with the mental jump-start he needs, and the film provides us with the perfect (if cartoonishly one-dimensional) mark in the form of Jake (Jeremy Strong), Jennifer's wealthy, condescending boss who is intent on doing away with printed material. "Robot & Frank" (honestly, what a lazy title) tags along with Robot and Frank as the former carries out his duties in service to the latter, who has convinced Robot that the stimulation of B&E is exactly what he needs to maintain his positive health trajectory. Cue close calls, familial strife, a tenacious sheriff (the eternally underappreciated Jeremy Sisto), and a revelation that is shocking, heart-tugging, and entirely earned.
Langella is one of those guys who has seemingly been around forever, a decorated stage actor who didn't really hit his cinematic stride until 60; it was once his swarthy good looks began silvering with age that directors were able to see him as something other than the bad guy. (Case in point: The man has played Dracula, Skeletor, AND Nixon.) Appearing in nearly every scene here — and often opposite an expressionless robot — Langella never once hits a false note. Of course this otherwise strapping septuagenarian would be dispirited by his increasingly debilitating condition, but he's also by turns salty, petulant, loving, manipulative, and wise. You can take the man out of the fight, but good luck taking the fight out of the man.
Fortunately, Langella is also one of those guys who raises the games of everyone nearby; even the breathy, blank Liv Tyler as Frank's anti-robot daughter, a globetrotting activist guilted into visiting her father, almost seems like a master thespian in his presence. (And Marsden is excellent; he's finally starting to grow on me.) Sarandon is nicely understated as the pivotal Jennifer, and she enjoys very sweet — and refreshingly age-appropriate — chemistry with Langella. Shot over an efficient 20 days, "Robot & Frank" is the first feature from director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford, former classmates at NYU who have resisted the Hollywood impulse to make cute fluff about a retiree and a robot, instead crafting a warm, truthful film about raging against the dying of the LED.