Before high costs and big successes of blockbusters Batman and Inception, Christopher Nolan created Memento, a small yet powerfully cerebral and chilling film that questioned how one defines his or her identity. Leonard Shelby runs through the movie determined, acting on what he believes true. If Memento is a melancholic tale dressed up as a psychological thriller, then Robot and Frank is an equally despairing story masquerading as a heartfelt dramatic comedy.
Shelby knew he had no short-term memory; he suffered a blow to the head. However Frank-the human half of the titled pairing-is simply losing his memory due to old age. And he knows it, sort of.
The prevailing question that develops immediately and lingers throughout the endearing film is whether or not memories define life. Shelby tattooed his new memories to his body so he wouldn’t forget. The Millennial generation records and catalogs everything, maybe because they can, but maybe also so they have something to remember. Frank’s goal is to hope to recreate the past.
A stubborn man, Frank (a superb Frank Langella) won’t admit he is forgetting things, even though names escape him, such as those of his son Hunter (James Marsden) and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). He insists on eating at a diner that no longer exists, and he doesn’t always remember where he lives. Still, he is certainly human, proud enough not to want to be put into an elderly home, and able enough to maintain a healthy standard, only if he wants.
Against the wishes of Madison, and at the insistence of Hunter (their mother is only mentioned as having left Frank) a robot companion (the film is set in the near future, mind you) joins Frank at his secluded house as his guardian, nurse, and of course, reluctant friend.
And partner in crime. Frank is a former jewel thief, with boastful memories that may very well be yarns, but maybe not, but he definitely steal has the dexterity to pick locks and the patience to stake out hits. Among the many things that annoy him other than the automated, which he makes very clear when introduced to the robot, are the young, insufferable yuppies that patronize the elderly. When Frank’s library, a landmark that is as old as he is with just as many stories to tell, is renovated—that is, removed of books and replaced with electronics—Frank is bothered to the point of action. Especially since this means the lovely librarian (Susan Sarandon) that Frank has his sights on, may not be around too much longer.
The film moves seamlessly between comedy and drama, so seamlessly in fact that you might not see the drama if you don’t want to. Frank has all the grumpiness and ill regard for advice one would expect and hope, especially when it comes from a machine he assumes wants to kill him. His exchanges with his new mechanical companion, thankfully well voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, are charming and sincere, odd yet comforting. With much hesitation, they grow together, and Frank enlists his help to get back the library, impress the librarian, annoy the yuppies, and well, find inspiration.
Yet Frank’s past may be just as meaningful as the robot, which is to say meaningless; at least to him. Hunter programmed (created) Frank’s mechanical helper, and there is of course a way to turn him off, and to erase his memory. Frank doesn’t have that switch, but his memories are being erased simply because he is an aged human.
It is very subtly dark, with genuine laughs and heart conveniently offering an escape from an inevitable end of both Frank and the Robot end that the movie will occasionally point to. The technology that is taking over the library is everywhere, and inevitable. The robot exists to perform a service, and any appearance of sincerity on its part is not unlike the manufactured charm of a human that is paid for his or her company. And Frank, he will keep growing older, and deal with all that it means to age, including losing touch with his family, friends, and his past.
But if he doesn’t know this is happening, what does it really matter?