"Robot & Frank" is a sweet tale about an aging, old codger, a grouchy misanthrope, living alone in a wooded area near Cold Springs, N.Y. It's sometime in the near future. But know that this is not a sci-fi film and the title is somewhat unfortunate. There are, however, just enough gadgets to hint that technology has evolved.
In the opening scene, Frank (Frank Langella), dressed in black, is standing in a dark den, rifling through a drawer, prying open a metal box and pocketing what he finds inside. He notices a photo on the desk and stops, stunned. It's a picture of his son. He is struck by the terrible realization that he has broken into his own house.
Cut to the next morning and it is evident that Frank is living in chaos. There is a sense that his life is out of control, frayed at more than just the edges. He walks into town, visits the library where he flirts with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the librarian, and steals bars of soap from a tchotchkes store. Things are unraveling, off center.
It's an opinion held by his son, Hunter (James Marsden), who drives 10 hours each weekend to check on him. Finally, against Frank's wishes, Hunter brings a 5-foot health care robot, programmed to clean and cook, organize and garden, and, in an insistent voice (Peter Sarsgaard), reminiscent of Hal 9000, push Frank toward a healthier lifestyle.
So the film evolves quickly into a friendship between Frank, consistently cranky, and the robot, ever eager to help out. A side plot is that Frank is a retired cat burglar, a studied thief, and decides to get back in the business. He discovers, to his delight, that the robot can pick a lock and open a safe in seconds. Voila! A match made in heaven.
What is also soon evident is that Frank is slipping deeper into dementia, giving insight to the opening moments of the film. Even with the help of the robot, Frank's journey is inevitable. What is happening to him is profoundly sad and also compelling as he and the robot (Frank never gives the droid a name) become partners in life and crime as well as a daily routine that he comes to rely on.
It's only in the final scenes that it becomes clear how far down a long and winding road toward loss of self that Frank has gone and it comes as a complete surprise. To him and the audience.
"Robot & Frank" is an appealing, engaging film, a fable, really, about the vagaries of life, about old age, family, and the utter absence of fairness. It is also a singular performance by a master actor; Frank Langella is, once again, superb. He demonstrates in spades that stories are ultimately about performances. Watching him inhabit a character is worth the price of admission.
"The Imposter" begins in an intriguing way: Frederick Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian, sits on the floor in a phone booth somewhere in Spain. It's the dead of night and raining hard. He calls the police, telling them that he had escaped from his abductors. While in the custody he tells them that he is Nicholas Barclay, a blue-eyed, blond-haired, 16-year-old who, some three years ago, was kidnapped by men near San Antonio, Texas. He wants to go home.
And so begins a saga of impersonation, mistaken identity, to include government agencies and family members, all convinced that Bourdin is Barclay. It's a true story, one requiring a suspension of disbelief.
His family in San Antonio is notified and his sister flies to Spain to get Nicholas and bring him home. Knowing that Nicholas' hair is blond, Frederick dies his and then waits, wondering if he should simply run away; the odds of passing for the young boy are slim to none.
But against all odds, his sister embraces him and is ready to make allowances for the observable changes.
It's at this point that the film begins to take a decidedly creepy turn. What seemed a straightforward tale now seems inexplicable. The responses of family members are so unexpected, so strange, that there is a sense that though this is a documentary (with recreations), the filmmakers are manipulating the audience, leading them to an astonishing conclusion that may or may not be credible.