There’s a small collection of movies out there that offer a particularly notable and meaningful commentary on older adulthood. “Iris,” a bittersweet drama depicting the famous author and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s, is a favorite of mine. The film’s depiction of the difficulties (and moments of joy) experienced by her devoted husband were extremely moving. There is also the hilarious fantasy tale in Pixar’s 2009 film “Up,” which so wonderfully and humorously depicts many of the prejudices and difficulties posed by older adults in our culture while at the same time spinning a delightful and eye-popping yarn.
“Robot and Frank” is a 2012 movie directed by the newcomer Jake Schreier in his feature-length debut. It stars Frank Langella who plays an aging, crotchety semi-retired cat burglar named Frank, who seems to be suffering from some early-stage dementia, and is cared for by his well-meaning but often-annoying two children.
The twist to this story (aside from Frank’s criminal tendencies) is that it takes place in the near future, and features a “healthcare robot” that Frank’s son has purchased to encourage Frank’s independence in his home, and to maintain Frank’s health. At first, Frank is hostile to the robot, but soon warms to his presence, particularly after he discovers that he can manipulate the robot into helping him resume his life of crime. (Peter Sarsgaard plays the robot, FTW. — BT) On the one hand, you might think, “clearly this is a bug in this robot’s programming; why would the manufacturers allow this robot to participate in criminal behavior with their care recipients?” However, the movie explains that the robot does its best to create an individualized care plan for the care recipient, and the highest priority for the healthcare robot is to maintain high functioning in their charges.
Gerontologists will tell you: one of the best ways to slow or prevent cognitive decline in vulnerable elderly is for older adults to remain actively engaged in meaningful activities. The robot initially tries to encourage Frank to engage in activities like gardening and hiking, but this doesn’t quite do it for Frank. So, what we end up with in this movie is a series of hugely entertaining scenes where the robot is trained by Frank to pick locks, taken along with him to do “jobs,” and becomes Frank’s business partner in some of his exploits. As a result, Frank gets his second wind, begins to eat better, displays more excitement for life, and for a time, seems sharper than he has ever been – but as a downside he attracts the interest of the local police.
Throughout the movie, however, we’re reminded that Frank is never really quite well. He seems to be constantly disoriented (misremembering that his son is no longer in college; forgetting that his favorite restaurant has been gone for years), and at the end of the movie when the dramatic (obligatory for a buddy movie) chase scene ensues, he displays a massive lapse in his memory that really demonstrates that Frank’s memory may be beyond remediation.
The brilliance of this movie is that it does many things all at once, both cinematically and as a commentary on aging and dementia care. “Robot and Frank” manages to embed a humorous and fascinating commentary on dementia caregiving within a charming, heartwarming science fiction “buddy movie” storyline. Caregiving for an older adult with memory problems is challenging as any son or daughter with a demented older adult at home can tell you – this movie provides a whimsical way of exploring the challenges. This is quality and timely social commentary in a very fun package.