Frank (Frank Langella) is an aging burglar. He’s living by himself but he has Alzheimer’s and has trouble remembering his children. Sometimes he breaks into his own house or steals candles from shops. His son (James Marsden) buys him a little robot butler to help out Frank, in and around the house. Frank doesn’t like this because he thinks he is fine, but soon he enlists the robot’s help in his burglar activities.
This is a very cute little movie. It is set in “the near future”, and while the world looks like today, there are little smart robots already rolling all over the place. Robot cars swoop along the road and the library has a robot librarian too. It’s clear that the movie’s budget is small, because the robots all look very flimsy and boxy. The Asimov robot that becomes Frank’s butler is clearly inhabited by a child actor as well. They look old and retro, but apparently their AI is good enough to go to the kitchen and make food on command.
Never mind how cheap it looks, the film is really about the story of Frank and his robot. The next morning, Frank has already forgotten that he was given a robot and is startled to find one waking him up. The robot takes charge and gets on Frank’s nerves right away. When the robot says that it will be wiped if it fails in taking care of Frank, they start to become a team. Then Frank starts teaching it lock picking.
Frank Langella, who has shown how good he can be in Frost/Nixon (2008), gives an excellent performance of a dementing jewelry thief and his dislike of changing times. It’s endearing how he adopts the little robot into his life and argues with it. You feel for him and smile about the odd couple they make. A surprising number of well-known actors have little guest roles in this independent movie too, including James Marsden, Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon, although Marsden and Tyler are hardly visible. This is Langella’s movie. Their names may have helped the marketing, but this movie still flew squarely under the radar.
There’s an underlying theme of future shock; times change so fast that we can’t keep up and think back in nostalgia. Frank is one of those that cannot keep up, and his use of the robot in his burglar activities is a subversion of the future. He doesn’t care about modern technology and communication; he sticks out his tongue and uses the modern technology against itself. The robot’s programming is more concerned with gaining Frank’s trust than to stop a housebreaking. There is also the issue about how younger generations treat old people. Society forces a robot on him, then society can deal with the consequences.
Some of the acting of the rich folks is quite fake and some of the continuity in the action scenes is very clumsy, but at the same time the film is continuously entertaining and at times quite funny. There is also some sadness in the story, and sadness keeps creeping up more and more towards the end. There is sadness about Frank’s compulsion of stealing, sadness about his dementia, and sadness about the robot not being a real person, and in the end all these conflicts come together. There is much more sadness than I expected, but it really elevates the movie to a higher level.
I’d recommend it. I also love how the end credits show real, actual modern robots making toast and riding a bicycle. It’s a sign of things to come.