Set "in the near future," but grappling with issues that are all about the past - reclaiming it, struggling to remember it, letting it go - Robot & Frank is a small, sweet character study that affords Frank Langella another opportunity to shine.
The great veteran actor is a retired cat burglar, living comfortably, and living alone, in upstate New York. But his memory is slipping, alarmingly: When his son, Hunter (James Marsden), checks in, Frank asks how Princeton is - a college his son attended a decade earlier, before he married and took a job.
And when Frank walks to town to his favorite restaurant, he seems shocked to see it has become a gift shop. It has been that way for years, and yet he's always surprised.
Frank's daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is wandering the world, and Frank's wife long ago left him. And so Hunter, burdened with responsibility and worry, arrives one day with a gift: a robot to keep house, cook meals, keep Frank company - and keep Frank on a regimen that might sharpen his wits, make him more mindful.
The robot, with its arms, legs, and rotating, visored head (and a voice by Peter Sarsgaard), is not welcome at first. But Frank cautiously takes to the little white machine, and soon he has got it programmed to help him with a heist. There are rare books at the local library - including a valuable Don Quixote - and Frank and his ambulatory accomplice are going to get them.
Langella plays things just right, with a gloss of sadness, confusion, and fright, but always with a glint of irony, too. (He could have been Meryl Streep's roomie as she wandered, disoriented, as the retired Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.) And when Frank goes into the library to case the joint, he's also there to flirt with the librarian, a generous and gentle Susan Sarandon, hiding behind her eyeglasses and her regrets.
Robot & Frank, written by Christopher D. Ford and directed by first-timer Jake Schreier, has a quiet whimsy about it, at the same time the film explores the challenging issues of aging, and loss, and, yes, memory loss. It's an Alzheimer's allegory, full of humanity, heart, and humor.