Robot & Frank is a weird, winning little movie that explores what happens to the essential self as one's memory fades. Oh, and it's a heist picture. With robot butlers. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.
A hulk of peevishness and lost purpose, Frank (Frank Langella) is a former - if not quite reformed - cat burglar. Long divorced and semi-estranged from his two grown children, he lives alone in upstate New York in what the film calls "the near future." His house is a mess, and his mind, it appears, is in a similar state of disarray. He often walks into town to have lunch at a long-closed diner - "I ate there last week," he puzzles anew, the disappointment always fresh - and he shoplifts from the chichi bath shop that's replaced it. When the proprietor screeches at him, "Who is responsible for you?" you have to wonder, who is responsible for Frank?
Soon enough, a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) becomes the responsible party. It's actually a "health-care aide" Frank's son (James Marsden) brings in to monitor Frank's diet and restore order to his days. At first Frank can't stand the thing - a bit of a clunker, it looks like a life-size Lego Stormtrooper, and it's always nattering about organic greens - but then Frank figures out that it would make one heck of an accomplice in his newest breaking-and-entering scheme.
Robot & Frank doesn't dwell upon its futuristic setting. The technology on display, including a library-helper robot ostensibly modeled after a file cabinet on wheels, has a charming first-generation feel, and Francis and the Lights' score of original electronica recalls the "this-is-the-future!" soundscape of many '80s movies and their goofily dated-looking hovercrafts and ray guns. This movie's future is less a setting than a thematic concern of Christopher D. Ford's nuanced script: The robot gives lost-in-the-past Frank a reason to look forward to tomorrow.