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Review: Frank

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

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Reader Comments (7)

Glad to see this review, Michael! I did like this film a lot and gave it a B as well.

I agree with the music. I wish the talent of the characters had been explored more, especially once Frank began sharing his 'likeable' songs.

I had an issue with the turn of the story / change in tone after what happens at the festival. It's almost too abrupt and I was just too fond of the funness of everything else before that, to actually go with where it was going. But I guess that kind of change is a great illustration of mental illness.

Loved the score in this. Gleeson's character was an issue for me. Didn't really like him. Makes it hard to fully embrace the film when he's anchoring it.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

Thanks for this thoughtful review. I tried to like the film, but wasn't keen on it. I did think it was too weird for its own good. Like Anthony Mai, I had a problem with Gleeson - your Salieri/Mozart comparison is a good one, but Gleeson is no F. Murray Abraham! But my main problem with the film was it was too slow. I felt that individual scenes went on far longer than they needed to - or else failed to get to the point entirely. The sequence where they were rehearsing in the cabin in the woods went on for an interminable length of time. And *MINOR SPOILER* I'm afraid the film lost me when they burnt the body of the band member who hanged himself. You can't burn a dead body and get away with it. *END SPOILER* From then on, I couldn't really believe what I was seeing. That said, the sequence at SXSW was good fun and perked the film up. And I agree that Fassbender was good in what must have been a very tricky role to conceive and play.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I agree that this is a very fun, thoughtful film that does have some dead spots. I don't think the "Don" character is handled particularly well. A lot of Jon's solo scenes feel like dead weight.

I did love the band and echo Michael C's sentiment that I wanted to see/hear more of the music. I thought the band's opening performance ("Ginger Crouton...?") was both hilarious and weirdly compelling. I could have watched another 5 minutes of Fassbender's croon-droning and spastic dancing.

And this film features my favorite Gyllenhaal performance in ages! She's hilarious, deadpan, constantly irritated/frustrated/contemptuous of Jon. I loved her symbiotic relationship with Frank and really liked that the film never answers whether she's actually in love with him. That's just Jon's perception.

Also, my favorite Fassbender perf since 2011. Frank is endearing, enthusiastic, joyful, compassionate, strange, eerily charismatic, manic, fragile, shamed. And the great thing is, most of those adjectives could never be used to describe a prior Fassbender character. Frank feels wholly original.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I agree with Edward that the film has some slack pacing / dead spots. I didn't get into Frank's flaws too much in the review because I found its strengths more interesting, but some of the things you listed are why my grade didn't go higher than a B.

Agree with Kate that this is Gyllenhaal's most interesting work since, what, Crazy Heart? Sherrybaby?

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael C.: Outperforming the Katie Holmes original stab at Rachel Dawes?

August 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Vol - Maggie was a solid Rachel, but it wasn't exactly what I'd call a feat of acting

August 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Give 'Frank Sidebottom' a Google and you might find 'some' similarities. He was quite a cult figure here in the north of England.

October 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

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