What, exactly, makes us who we are? Are we merely an amalgamation of biochemical components randomly thrown together, susceptible to the ravages of time? An arrangement of thought patterns organized around some unidentified driving force? A collection of memories bound together by some unseen unifying element? Or is it some combination of the foregoing? Those are some of the underlying questions raised for consideration in the delightful new comedy, “Robot & Frank.”
“Retirement” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for Frank Weld (Frank Langella), a former cat burglar and ex-con who has retreated to the idyllic seclusion of a near future version of Cold Spring, NY. As one who’s accustomed to doing things in rather traditional ways, he’s frequently put off by the progressively invasive role of technology in daily life. It also doesn’t help that Frank has little contact with others; his son, Hunter (James Marsden), begrudgingly pays routine visits to check up on him, while his nonconformist daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), travels the globe in search of faraway cultures and alternative experiences. In fact, Frank’s only significant relationship is with the local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who dotes on him, given that he’s just about the only patron of her increasingly antiquated facility.But what poses the biggest challenge for Frank is his failing memory. He lapses in and out of present day awareness, never completely clear about what’s current and what’s not, and insistent that there’s nothing wrong with his recollection. He swears, for example, that Hunter is enrolled at Princeton, a fact that’s 15 years out of date. Likewise, he’s absolutely certain that he recently ate dinner at one of his favorite local eateries, one allegedly housed in a storefront that’s been a boutique for quite some time. And even though Frank comes across as seemingly functional enough, his memory has failed so significantly that he can’t even remember his ex-wife.
These circumstances present a major challenge for Hunter as Frank’s principal caregiver. Given his father’s unwillingness to voluntarily relocate to a special care facility for the memory impaired, he ultimately must resort to more drastic measures than just paying regular visits to keep Frank’s household from falling apart. His solution is to provide Frank with a new live-in caretaker, a robotic health care worker programmed to fulfill all of his father’s needs. The robot cleans house, cooks meals, attends to Frank’s medical needs and provides a modicum of companionship. It even talks (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), diligently reminding its patient of what he needs to do to take better care of himself.
Needless to say, Frank initially balks at the idea, but, when faced with the alternative, he gradually relents. Frank even starts to like his new electronic pal, especially once he realizes he can easily engage the robot in activities that he enjoys. For instance, when the robot suggests that Frank participate in some kind of ongoing project to keep his mind active, it recommends starting a backyard vegetable garden, but Frank has something else in mind. Once he becomes aware of the robot’s ability to learn new skills and adapt its programming, Frank decides to engage his companion in a project of his own design, namely, getting back into the burglary business. Before long, Frank has a new – and quite formidable – partner in crime.
Frank sees his targets – his affluent but clueless neighbors – as easy pickings, too. Even those who think they have Frank’s schemes figured out (such as his pedantic neighbor Jake (Jeremy Strong) and the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto)) can’t decipher the inscrutable tactics of the seasoned thief, especially when aided and abetted by the wizardry of a technological genius. Indeed, when Frank is in his element, it would seem there’s nothing at all wrong with his memory. Or is there? Can he still get away with things like he did in the past, or are there memory-related pitfalls that will be his downfall? Or is that just what he wants everyone to think? It’s a set of circumstances that keeps everyone – human and electronic – guessing as events play out.
Most of us would probably agree that we have a pretty good handle on who we are and what goes into making up our everyday life. In fact, we often hold such a degree of certainty about it that we never question our assumptions about our existence. We place unshakable confidence in our consciousness to serve as our sentient guide through life, allowing it to define the beliefs that form the reality around us. And Frank is certainly no exception; he perceives his existence as being based on what he knows to be true, even if his conclusions don’t always align with those of others.
But is he “wrong” when his beliefs don’t match up with those of others around him? From where he stands, his beliefs about reality are just as rock solidly valid as those who contend to the contrary. So, under such circumstances, can the detractors genuinely prove that what’s going on in Frank’s mind is intrinsically “false”? One would certainly have great difficulty dissuading him, even when offering up “evidence” to refute his claims.
For someone with memory issues, like Frank, it may be easy for others to attempt to counter his claims, even if he were to fundamentally disagree with them. But Frank’s circumstances also help to illustrate the larger issue of can we really know what’s going on in the mind of someone else? Consider, for example, someone who has some sort of extraordinary experience, such as an event of a paranormal nature. Can we say with certainty that said individual didn’t experience what he or she claims to have experienced? (I’m sure the naysayers would get quite an argument from the individual in question.) So is it any surprise, then, that Frank might feel exactly the same way when his contentions are challenged? The certainty he holds about his reality is, at bottom, just as steadfast as that of the person who experiences apparitions, psychic episodes, déjà vu or any other phenomena that aren’t what most of us would consider part of everyday life.For most of us, memory is a crucial element in shaping the beliefs that go into creating the reality we experience through the conscious creation process. It gives us a foundation, a back story as it were, upon which we build the principles that support our view of existence. And, like any foundation, it provides a solid underpinning for our contentions. But this is not to suggest that memory-based beliefs are unalterable. In some instances, they can be changed, while in others, they may remain the same as other associated beliefs go through transformation. In either case, however, such beliefs may ultimately seem to conflict with other evidence to the contrary. Such contradictions may be a way of coping with difficulty, of blocking out painful truths that we’d rather not deal with, or they may be an attempt to hold on to pleasant recollections of manifestations that have come and gone. Points like this are effectively illustrated in this film, as well as in other pictures, such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Regardless of the reason for their persistence, however, such beliefs nevertheless illustrate the role of memory – or what we think of as “memory” – in shaping our existence, something that Frank and his family must come to terms with on a very basic level.
In addition to framing our reality, our beliefs also provide the means for mirroring back to us that which we concentrate upon. This is apparent throughout the movie in many ways, especially when it comes to matters of sentience. The robot, for example, makes frequent references to its memory and the fact that it can be erased, circumstances not unlike what Frank is experiencing himself. It’s a thought that troubles him, especially when the robot speaks of it matter of factly, no doubt because it hits so close to home. Frank shudders at the realization that his consciousness may be just as vulnerable as that of his electronic friend, that he may be little more than a biochemical equivalent of his cybernetic buddy, one whose sentience can be wiped away just as easily as that of his circuit-controlled pal. With this belief reflected back to him through the robot, Frank comes to value his consciousness, holding onto it with all the strength he can muster, lest he face the consequences of having his sentience be cast aside like oh so much burned-out wiring.
Moreover, it’s also no coincidence that Frank’s best friend is a librarian. As someone whose job essentially involves managing the recorded musings and recollections of others, Jennifer is present in Frank’s life, symbolically, to help him do the same for himself, to assist him in preserving what sentience he has left. She’s an expert as what she does, which is partly why he drew her into his life and why she so thoughtfully attends to his needs (helping him, for example, in avoiding book selections he’s read before but no longer recalls).
Frank also wrestles with issues related to control and manipulation (specifically those having to do with how others, such as his children, seek to run his life), and they’re mirrored back to him through the manifestation of his beliefs regarding his feelings about the robot. Frank has always been in charge of his own destiny, for better or worse, and now he’s facing the prospect of that control slipping away from him. And, even if others say that they’re acting in his best interests, he still resents being corralled into behaviors that run counter to his nature. This comes out not only in his own reactions but also in his feelings toward his live-in companion. Over time Frank becomes very sensitive to how others treat the robot; where they see a piece of sophisticated yet subservient technology, he sees a friend, an equal, one who deserves the same kind of dignity and respect that should be accorded any fellow human being (even one challenged by memory issues).
“Robot & Frank” is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual films to come out in a long time. It’s jam-packed with ideas, and it never fails to evoke thoughtful reactions as its story unfolds. However, because it attempts to incorporate so much into its runtime, it occasionally comes up a little short (some themes are never developed quite as fully as they might have been, for example). Similarly, for as many good laughs are there are in the film, it could have used a few more, especially in the middle, when the pacing tends to drag a bit. Those shortcomings are effectively compensated for, though, by an intriguing narrative, a number of hilarious sight gags, and wonderful performances from Langella, Sarsaggard and Strong. If nothing else, you’ll likely come away from this one feeling pleasantly entertained and full of ideas previously unconsidered.
“I am what I am” is a notion that many of us hold dear, almost jealously, and we become justifiably defensive of that stance when the image we hold of ourselves comes under scrutiny. Becoming clear about our beliefs enables us to better understand ourselves and the reality that we materialize through them, as Frank comes to discover for himself with the assistance of his unlikely companion. To that end, then, may we all have the wisdom to see the truth – and the folly – that we create through the power that lies within each of us.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.