Robot & Frank (PG-13) (88 min.) — The premise sounds like a cut-rate Disney flick: Grumpy old man gets stuck with a robot for a roommate, and each learns life lessons. Yet with a deceptively deep screenplay and Frank Langella's wonderfully gruff portrayal of the human half of the duo, Robot & Frank is one of the most embraceable movies of the year.
Langella plays Frank, a former jewel thief slipping into dementia. He lives alone since a yuppie son (James Marsden) and hippie daughter (Liv Tyler) are preoccupied with either owning the world or saving it. Frank's wife gave up and moved away years ago. He spends his days walking to town, visiting what he recalls as a bar but is now a knickknack shop, and dropping by to shyly flirt with a librarian (Susan Sarandon).
Nothing scientific or particularly fictional about that but Robot & Frank is sci-fi in its essence; set in a near future with smarter phones, zippier cars and libraries that are obsolete. The kind of twilight zone Rod Serling would appreciate, with human frailties more vital to the story than technology. Even the robot caretaker Frank receives as a gift from his son is lower-tech than the Jetsons promised.
Frank initially resists the robot he refuses to name as other owners do. The machine's voice (provided by Peter Sarsgaard) is calm to the point of annoyance, and its efforts to correct Frank's diet and other health tips are unappreciated. Then Frank realizes the robot has what he does not — a memory that can come in handy when Frank's thieving instincts arise.
What he plans to steal, who it's for, and the emotional importance of the effort are mysteries director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford hold close to their vests. Certainly the warm surprises in store for viewers won't be spoiled here. But Robot & Frank gradually transcends any first impressions of its premise. The caper aspect is the least of the movie's virtues; a theme of grudging adjustment to a change is its finest.
Langella is a constant delight, virile yet vulnerable and seamlessly responding to a co-star who actually isn't there. Much of the performance is delivered to an empty shell or off-stage line readers, with Sarsgaard's voice — sounding like HAL 9000 with a conscience — recorded months after filming ended. The movie is too small for Oscar consideration but critics and the Independent Spirit Awards likely will take notice.
Robot & Frank occasionally strains for emotion and stretches credulity, even for such fantasy circumstances. But it has two hearts — one human, one not — in the right place, and intelligence that is anything but artificial. A- (Tampa Theatre, BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic