Michael C. here. The audience can be forgiven if it assumes that Lenny Abarahamson’s Frank will be another cookie cutter indie quirkfest. The title character certainly seems at first glance like a contrived package of screenwriting conceits. Played by an actor we have to take on faith is Michael Fassbender, Frank is an artist who, despite a recent stay in a mental institution, still wears at all times a beach ball-sized fiberglass head with a blank Howdy Doody face. Frank is the lead singer of an avant-garde band with an unpronounceable name (the Soronprfbs) and an unlistenable sound. When they perform it looks like five people having a synchronized nervous breakdown. With this shooting gallery of easy targets we sit back and wait for the movie to rain down mockery on its characters, sort of like a Napoleon Dynamite for hipster musicians.
The great surprise of Frank is that it avoids the easy jokes, aiming for something altogether more interesting. Abrahamson accepts these bizarre characters at face value and follows them with thoughtfulness and an open mind, often to funny places, sometimes to bracingly dark ones. It’s a tricky tonal balancing act, but the film rarely steps wrong. In passing up the cheap shots, Frank finds unexpected depth beneath the weirdness.
We first meet Frank and company through Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) a would-be songwriter who spends his days wandering the streets hoping to find the inspiration to jumpstart his dormant creative engine. [More...]
(Sample lyric: “Lady in the red coat, what you doing with that bag!”)
When the Soronprfb's keyboardist hurls himself into the sea in a fit of madness, they offer Jon the gig based on his ability to play three chords. With no foreseeable prospects, and no discernable talent, it is clear this is the best offer he is going to get. Before long, Jon is isolated in a cabin with the band as they endeavor to record Frank’s grand experimental masterpiece.
The masterstroke that elevates Frank out of potential one-joke territory is having Frank be a genuine talent. Despite his peculiarity, and his likely mental illness, Frank turns out to be a musical savant who can spin melodic wonders out of the tiniest wisp of inspiration. This is a revelation to Jon, who hopes that close proximity will allow him to absorb Frank's talent through osmosis. Failing that he intends to grab on to Frank’s coattails with all his might and ride them as far as they will take him. To do this he will have to deal with the rest of the band who have formed a cult of personality around Frank, and who don't trust this newcomer or his mainstream ambition. Chief among them is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s hot-tempered, theremin playing Clara, who is fiercely protective of Frank and pegs Jon immediately as a parasite and a mediocrity. Sure Frank says he sees something special in Jon, but he is such a positive spirit he could probably find value in anybody, and really, how well can he see out of that thing?
It’s hard to explain the strange appeal of Michael Fassbender’s performance as the man inside the mask. The film is lost if we don’t buy Frank as the kind of magnetic persona that can attract a following of worshipers but Fassy sells it, building Frank into a fully dimensional character despite being limited to a single facial expression of simpering friendliness. “What’s going on inside that head…inside that head,” Jon muses at one point. We share his curiosity. Frank’s habit of explaining his facial expressions underneath the head aloud helps fill in some of the gaps.
If there is an element of the movie that felt lacking it’s the music. For a film that centers on Frank’s musical brilliance, I wanted to hear more of him in action. There is one memorable scene where he improvises a ditty for Jon on a whim and a priceless bit where he performs his idea of a commercial crowdpleaser, but for the most part Frank holds back until the film’s climactic musical number. It’s a powerful scene. One that suggests a great outsider musical that might have been. (As if Fassbender wasn’t already a paragon of awesomeness, it turns out he has an impressive singing voice as well.)
Frank is an odd duck of a film. It’s tough to pin down exactly why it works, but work it does. I began the film expecting a feature length Portlandia sketch, and I left the theater comparing it to Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus. Jon is the Salieri, capable of recognizing brilliance but lacking the ability to duplicate it. Frank is the Mozart, an absurd person but touched with the gift. Jon studies Frank in the hopes that explaining his talent would give him the ability to mimic it. He envies Frank’s troubled early years, and curses his own abysmal luck at having a happy childhood. It’s an alluring idea to think that by emulating an artist’s circumstances, one can be copy his ability. As if all Jon needed to do to be Frank is slip the giant head over his own noggin. Abrahamson’s film is wiser than that. It resists the temptation to romanticize mental illness, tackles some unexpectedly complex questions and doesn’t shy away when it reaches some rough answers. Like its title creation, Frank is one-of-a-kind, and worth getting to know. Grade: B