Along with the dregs of Hollywood blockbuster season, August is when Wisconsin's Beloit College puts out its annual Mindset List — that widely reported roundup of cultural touchstones deemed unlikely to mean anything to incoming university freshmen. This year's includes things like cars that rely only on radio signals for sound (because children of the MP3 age never had to drive around with only commercial FM for the journey) and a U.S. Supreme Court without Justice Stephen Breyer. If that list does what its compilers intend and makes you feel old, Robot & Frank is your jam.
For one thing, Liv Tyler and James Marsden — familiar to freshmen from their Lord of the Rings and X-Men roles (respectively) instead of for being in Aerosmith videos and Party of Five episodes — play the almost-middle-aged children of the main character. For another, that main character is an old man, and he's played by Frank Langella, who is in fact pretty old.
Frank is a retired burglar who spent more time in prison than he did with his kids, and now he forgets things. We meet him mid-heist — robbing the home he has forgotten is his own. Frank's son insists that it's time Dad get a robot helper. This being what the movie says is the near future, such a device is common. It's one of the wittiest touches in this over-light debut feature by director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford that the robot looks not like an iPhone or a Prius but like a slightly more up-to-date version of something from Sleeper. (Wittier still, it's voiced by Peter Sarsgaard.)
In his latest lion-in-winter role, Langella doesn't eclipse his defining turns in Frost/Nixon and Starting Out in the Evening. But he's reason enough to see Robot & Frank, an uneven film that's too blunt in its satiric moments and too slack in its ideas about solitude and aging. Schreier and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd's give Langella the lighting and framing to be lonelier than the screenplay allows, especially when Susan Sarandon shares the scene. The movie almost finds the power to haunt but settles for scattered (if pungent) laughs.