ReThink Review: <em>Robot & Frank</em> - High-Tech Golden Years

Despite its sci-fi premise,is a wonderfully intimate, human, insightful, and surprisingly funny film.
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The idea of a personal servant robot has been a fantasy and goal ever since the idea of a robot was first imagined. But with technology cheaper, better, and more ubiquitous than ever, it seems that the dawn of the personal robot has never been closer, particularly in the field of eldercare. Several companies are competing to create an affordable robot that would help the elderly live at home longer by helping with daily tasks, dispensing medication, and communicating with family, friends, doctors, and emergency services. And with people living longer, a competent, easy-to-use, non-threatening eldercare robot could be a cash cow.

After reading one of the many articles about the technological future of eldercare, screenwriter Christopher D. Ford came up with the story for Robot & Frank, a film about Frank, an aging father with a failing memory (Frank Langella) whose son (James Marsden) buys him an eldercare robot so Frank can continue to live on his own. While Frank is initially hostile to his futuristic assistant, the two form an unlikely friendship when Frank realizes that the robot might be the perfect accomplice, allowing Frank to return to a criminal past he reluctantly abandoned so he can save his town's library and his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon). Watch my ReThink Review of Robot & Frank below (transcript following).

(To see if Robot & Frank is playing near you, visit Robot & Frank's official page.)


Knowing what to do with an aging or ill parent can be a difficult, divisive, sometimes heartbreaking affair, especially if children don't live close by to provide day-to-day care. A few years ago, several articles predicted that as the price of technology dropped, eldercare would increasingly become the job of robots, who could not only perform needed functions, but as artificial intelligence improved, could also provide some degree of companionship to keep seniors less isolated and their minds active. Inspired by one of those articles, screenwriter Christopher Ford came up with Robot & Frank, where technology is merely the springboard for a story about memory, family, old age, and an unlikely friendship.

Frank Langella plays Frank, whose failing memory is making living alone in a small town more difficult, dangerous, and an increasing stress on his son, Hunter (James Marsden), who has to drive up every weekend to make sure Frank is okay. So Hunter decides to give Frank a healthcare robot, whose blocky shape and astronaut helmet looks a lot like Honda's Asimo robot and is performed by a five-foot-tall dancer named Rachael Ma. Frank initially hates the robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, who cleans up Frank's cluttered house, cooks him healthy meals, and encourages Frank to start a garden and engage in other physically and mentally stimulating activities.

But the activity that really gets Frank going relates to his secret past as a cat burglar, and when he learns that Robot can learn his skills without judgment, Frank decides to use Robot to pull some heists to help save the town's library, whose librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), Frank has a crush on. By teaching Robot the ins and outs of picking locks, staking out locations, and bypassing security systems, Frank is able to share a part of his life he never could've revealed to Hunter or his hippyish sister (Liv Tyler).

I have a special connection to Robot & Frank because I spent years helping take care of my grandparents and later did eldercare. One of the people I took care of was a man named Tom, who I bathed, stretched, dressed, and walked, and I was there when he had the stroke that eventually killed him. For years, Tom had been taken care of by his wife and female caregivers, and I had the honor of being the last male friend he ever made. Tom regaled me with tales of his life in the Navy that I knew he wouldn't have shared with a woman, or even his family.

In that sense, Frank's relationship with Robot made total sense to me, since I had been a lot like Robot -- an outsider who became a repository for secrets, stories, and advice that Tom wanted to give before he forgot it or died. I'd be curious to know if Ford or director Jake Schreier had experience with seniors since I think Robot & Frank really gets this right, how difficult it can be for older people to accept their diminishing capabilities and the desire to share their life and stories before it's too late.

Despite its sci-fi premise, Robot & Frank is a wonderfully intimate, human, insightful, and surprisingly funny film that has a lot to say for both older and younger audiences, with terrific performances by Langella and Sarandon. It's a small film with a somewhat challenging premise, but as someone who's seen the highs and lows of being a caregiver for the elderly, it's a movie that quietly has a lot to say, that you should definitely track down.

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