In Cold Spring, N.Y., in "the near future," add a new level of understanding, interacting and remembering, by a man-made creature with a model number instead of a name.
Frank, an older man who separated from his wife long ago, isn't doing well. He's disheveled, he eats junk, his house is a mess and he pours spoiled milk on his cereal. His son, Hunter, lives hours away; his daughter, Madison, is traveling in Turkmenistan and checking in on Dad via the next generation of Skype. When he takes a jaunt into town, we learn that Frank also has a bit of a shoplifting problem.
So Hunter (James Marsden) gets his father (Frank Langella) a humanesque robot butler, with a slightly bulkier body than C3PO, the shiny white plastic skin and functional legs of a "Star Wars" Stormtrooper, the round head and dark eye visor of WALL-E, and the soothing, almost unctuous voice of Peter Sarsgaard doing his best HAL impression. The robot buzzes a bit when it moves, but can expertly cook, clean and monitor Frank's health. The alternative, Hunter tells Frank, is a "brain center," a nursing home for people with memory problems.
Of course, Frank rejects this slightly creepy computerized helper: "That thing is going to murder me in my sleep," he gripes. But soon enough, the robot - a VGC-60L model that Frank never bothers to name - ingratiates itself, offering healthful meals, insisting that they plant a garden and go for walks, even shaving and barbering Frank, who starts to look much better. When Frank announces that he intends to die eating cheeseburgers, the robot states matter-of-factly that if that happens, it will be taken back to the warehouse to have its memory wiped. If this robot had puppy-dog eyes, they would have been activated at that moment. Frank, who is having some memory-wiping problems of his own, is stricken by the thought.
Like Frank's mind, the town library is also under siege. The loving book-handling of librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) will soon be obsolete, as a supercilious young hipster consultant named Jake (Jeremy Strong) has been hired to throw out all those dusty old books and transform the library into an "augmented reality" center. When Jake tells Frank, "You're so square you're practically avant-garde," we see a glimmer of menace in Frank's eyes.
Because, as it turns out, Frank wasn't always the hapless grandpa we see today - he served two lengthy prison terms for daring jewelry thefts. When Frank realizes by chance that the robot has not been programmed to obey the law, his eyes light up and he says happily, "You're starting to grow on me."
Between his old-time burglary skills and the robot's lightning-fast ability to run through thousands of safe combinations, Frank hopes to score big with one last heist.
A sudden fly in the ointment is Madison (Liv Tyler), who returns home and shuts off the robot, telling Frank self-righteously that her brother has "abandoned you with a machine." Frank must somehow change his daughter's mind to get the robot's help in his felonious plans.
One of the funniest moments of this gently amusing story is the interaction between Frank's robot and the library assistant, a more crudely made robot whimsically named Mr. Darcy. Robot small talk consists of, "I am functioning normally," and the reply, "As am I."
When police finally get suspicious of Frank, he must again confront the uncomfortable possibility of wiping the robot's memory, which he compares to lobotomizing it.
Frank's interactions with Madison and Hunter (perfect name choices for these two adult children in an era when grade schools burst at the seams with Madisons and Hunters) show that things are not always as they seem. And the delicate love story between Frank and Jennifer is delightful to watch, if a bit unbelievable at the end.
But the most interesting part of this touching, amusing and absorbing story is the partnership and eventual friendship that develops between Frank and his robot.
Robot & Frank
Starring: Frank Langella, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Strong.
Director: Jake Schreier
Running time: 89 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some language.
The Lowdown: An older man with memory problems is outraged when his son buys him a robot butler, until he realizes the robot can help him resume his life of crime.