Dementia is not normally a subject afforded much subtlety by Hollywood screenwriters. Often, a courtesy first-act hint that something’s amiss, by way of an elderly character forgetting where they’ve parked their car / set down their keys / left their wallet (delete as appropriate) is considered exposition enough for any and all forms of cognitive degeneration. From there, our afflicted protagonist can begin their rapid decline into mental disarray, while the audience is pressed to consider the ephemeral nature of existence — as made flesh by the trials of a crotchety old man played by either Richard Jenkins or Frank Langella.
At first glance, Robot and Frank is an unremarkable addition to this canon. Langella is present and correct (Jenkins, regrettably, was busy filming Liberal Arts when shooting took place) and our clue to his mental deterioration comes not just early but in the film’s opening scene, as his ageing ex-con Frank pulls off yet another successful burglary only to discover, when confronted with an array of familiar mantelpiece photographs, that he’s broken into his own home.
The film takes its leave from cliché, however, once Frank’s beleaguered son Hunter (James Marsden) furnishes him with a genial ‘carer robot’ (voiced, exquisitely, by Peter Sarsgaard) to help around the house, regulate his daily routine and generally keep the mischievous old rogue on the straight and narrow.
In lesser hands, the result would be a film in thrall to its own eccentricity, but first-time filmmakers Christopher D. Ford and Jake Schreier are wise to let the potency of their premise speak for itself, and the ethical questions thrown up once Frank sets about convincing his humanoid companion that thievery might in fact be beneficial to his health are all the more stimulating for their spontaneity.