"Robot and Frank" had a criminal theatrical treatment in 2012. The incredibly intelligent, comedy/drama uses a sci-fi setting few films are able to do, in order to tell a story of aging through the most unlikely and improbable friendship. The premise is simple: an aged thief, Frank (Frank Langella), received a robot helper from his son (James Marsden) after it becomes apparent, despite protests, he's unable to fully care for himself and his home. Quite honestly, the less you know about the film the better, but I somehow suspect a lot of people wouldn't be sold on the premise along. "Robot and Frank" is a rare film though that transcends genres and the sci-fi setting is only lightly used to give believability to the inclusion of Frank's robot helper (voiced eloquently by Peter Saarsgaard).
Director Jake Schirer brings writer Christopher Ford's script to life remarkably, even when in the third act, on paper, the story is a bit muddled. Ford lets the strength of the film, Frank Langella's performance remain the focal point and keeps things moving at a pace that is tonally parallel to Frank's slower, twilight years. The movie has a definite place it's heading towards, but it doesn't try to rush things, leaving some surprises for the final moments of the film. The film does suffer from an abrupt shift in tone in the final act that overshadows the quieter, human moments of Frank flirting with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) or bonding with his robotic counterpart through various misdeeds. Fortunately, the unlikely and ultimately deeply moving relationship Frank and his robot form keeps an anchor point for audiences, especially after we see how strained his relationship is with his flesh-and-blood daughter (Liv Tyler).
Langella is the heart and soul of the film (although Saarsgaard's vocal performance recalls the talents of Kevin Spacey in "Moon") and even as the film gets a bit muddles in its storytelling, Langella is hitting home runs all day long. He's the rare actor who is a master at his craft but often fades into the background because he refuses to be showy, even when he's the star of the film. He effortlessly tells you what you need to know about his character's past while giving you reasons to empathize with his current state, even when it involves outright theft. Langella is what should dispel the notion that "Robot and Frank" is just a sci-fi movie and not something more; he is a living breathing character who we want to see how his story ends and in the process enter a quite believable vision of the future that isn't flashy and is how low-key sci-fi should be done: emotion first, visuals second.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is incredibly visually pleasing. Colors are bold and natural, most apparent in exterior sequences that capture the idyllic, but familiar world Frank lives in. Detail is steadily above average with little digital noise/grain to interfere with the image, although some shots have a consistent soft feeling to them, that is almost assuredly a deliberate artistic choice.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track mostly stays front channel-centric, with a lot of dialogue driven scenes in intimate interior settings, while surrounds and low-end get a workout during a few key sequences. The film's score has some warmth to it, but stood out to me as almost forgettable when underplayed over any scene with dialogue. Portuguese and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also included. English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The only extras are a low-key commentary track with the writer and director and an image gallery of the film's posters.
"Robot and Frank" deserves a second-life on DVD after a nearly non-existent theatrical release. Oddly, the film is only getting this DVD release, with Sony keeping it off Blu-Ray for reasons unknown. Fortunately, the technical presentation is solid enough, its absence on high-def isn't hugely noticeable. Hopefully, more people will look past the thin premise and sci-fi branding, and take a chance on a film that has earnest laughs, real emotions, and a fantastic cast helmed by the always-wonderful Frank Langella. Highly Recommended.