I love making lists. I’m a very tactile learner. I have to write things down by hand most of the time to remember them. Of course, this also means I have lists left around my apartment, in old pages of a notepad, as well as post-its that my eyes just glaze over after a while. My point is this: as hard as I try to remember things and be organized, I forget a lot. This leads me to my movie review here of Robot & Frank. It’s been on a list taped to my wall that was transferred from my Albany apartment, along with several other movies I wanted to see. The only other one I’ve seen on the list is Perks of Being a Wallflower. Last weekend I was talking to J about how I spent a night starting three different movies that just couldn’t hook me when I glanced at the list. Lucky for me Robot & Frank is currently streaming on Netflix.
This movie is set “somewhere in the near future” and it seems that we come in at a point that could predict life when people my age are now retiring. Technology has advanced to make calls on your TV screen and holographic phones, and there are now robots you can purchase that have personality in a sense but mostly function as an aid. We get the impression that Frank is a simple man, living alone in his house and happy to live his shop-lifting, meandering days just however he wants. His son arrives, as he does every week, with a robot to help Frank keep his home clean and essentially stay sane. We see slips in Frank’s memory but he appears to function as a typical old crank. After arguing about the robot, Frank’s son leaves and they get to talking. Robot never gets a name.
As I was watching this I felt like I keep falling into this pattern of movies about isolated men. Lars and the Real Girl, Her (which I haven’t seen but have already read plenty about), and now this. Frank’s particular problem is that he’s done time for burglary, more than once, and he doesn’t seem to have interest in much else. His trips into town involve burglarizing the same store, even though the clerk is clearly on to him. Frank only starts to bond to Robot because of its lack of morality when it comes to stealing. Frank turns Robot into his partner in crime, despite Robot repeatedly saying, “I’m not human.” The robot has one main directive – to get Frank healthy and in a routine for his memory – and therefore anything else is a just a means to that end. There are some blurry edges here though. He uses emotional manipulation to get Frank to keep him in the beginning, saying he doesn’t want to fail and go back to the factory where his memory would be erased. We’ll see how that sticks with Frank later.
We reach a point when Frank’s hippie, world-saving daughter comes to stay and refuses to let Robot stay on until Frank quiet predictably tells her, “he’s my friend.” It’s true in a sense. There’s a very fine line in their bond that feels real despite the (lack of) reality of the relationship. Frank complies with Robot’s demands to get its help picking locks to steal from the futuristic young entrepreneur destroying the library. Robot does what Frank asks as long as they have a healthy routine.
The reveal at the end [OMG SPOILER] that the nice librarian Frank has a crush on is actually his ex-wife didn’t feel as surprising as it did sad. Obviously Frank never changed from his one main focus: thieving and focusing on himself. So I was pretty confused when it seemed like Frank wanted to run off with Robot instead of erasing his memory to avoid jail time. Only when Robot explains how Frank could start over, beginning the lock pick teaching process over again, that I think Frank realizes how singular his focus had been and that it’s time to let go.
“I knew you had an off switch,” Frank says as the powered down Robot folds into his arms. At the last second Frank realizes just how far gone he really had become. He winds up in a home (Brain Center?), still a little off but coherent enough to leave his son a note for them to find the diamonds hidden under the garden Robot planted. What? Yes, diamonds, from the big heist of the movie, which I can’t say I found all that compelling. It suited the narrative well but it was almost too obvious that some hip douchebag would be turning the library into a digital hang out, acting totes fascinated by Frank as an old who likes real books. Frank then steals that guy’s wife’s jewelry in a big heist with Robot, after they first stole books from the library as the initial training job. The pursuing events with Jeremy Sisto as the fan/shady cop and everything was entertaining but not compelling. A means to end, I guess. Just like Robot & Frank.