Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Going into Lenny Abrahamson's disarming new film Frank, the most pertinent question, both in terms of the audience as well as the picture's protagonist and would-be musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), is "will he, or won't he take it off?" This question, of course, pertains to the papier-mâché helmet the title character played by Michael Fassbender wears throughout as a kind of initially goofy performance-art stunt. What one comes to realize over the course of Abrahamson's quirky minor gem is that Frank, the elusive ringleader of a band of avant-garde musical misfits, has a bit more going on inside that hyperactive mind than simple artistic statements. Frank too, as a film, has a bit more going on than it's Wes Anderson-esque flights of whimsy would seem to suggest. At times, it plays like a struggling artist band movie, while at others, it seems to exist as a dark comedy mixed with a takedown of the vapidity of the music business. Still, despite the picture's wobbly tone; lurching from indie quirk to macabre drama, there's an undeniable pleasure to watching Frank. it's the kind of film that seems slight on the surface, but that deepens it's focus on issues of mental illness and a tribute to fringe artists marching to their own drum as it moves into an unexpected third act.
For most of it's running time, Frank operates as a semi-reimagining of co-writer Jon Ronson's experiences working with singer/comedian Frank Sidebottom, whose alter ego also wore a giant helmet. But Abrahamson also includes commentary on the state of social media, the tenuous line between art and commerce, and the role mental illness may or may not play in artistic genius. As the film opens, we see the rather talentless Jon operating in a state of creative frustration, vainly trying to conjure inspiration by humorously staring at the ocean or catching random passersby on the street. His knack, or lack thereof, for penning cringe-inducing pop jingles on his keyboard are given a jolt of promise early on when he's abruptly thrown into the mix with a touring band called Soronprfbs after their keyboardist has a breakdown. The band, which also includes a mannequin-loving manager (Scoot McNairy), a poo-faced French guitarist (Francois Civil) a nearly mute drummer (Carla Azar), and an aggressive theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhaal), are a motley group of atonal noise rockers, led more by manic impulses than commercial viability. Jon, on the other hand, is one of those earnest English lads with dreams of stardom, if only he could find his songwriting mojo. Though there are clear links here to the avant-garde musical stylings of Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston, Frank seems less keen on making actual music than on being present to each and every moment, living as a kind of funnel for pure and free expression.
At first, Frank plays like a typical, though decidedly off-beat, fish-out-of-water story pitting the straight-laced Jon's attempts to fit in with the band with the bewildering antics of Frank. The whole fame-chasing careerist vs. the isolated genius angle has been tackled many times before, and the sequences set at a remote cabin where the band are attempting to record an album at times threaten to become too arch for their own good. It helps, during this middle section, that Fassbender is such a game performer, losing himself in Frank's bizarre and at times endearing behavior. The idea of casting such a magnetic actor, known both for his good looks as well as his thespian abilities, as a man purposely hiding his face from the world is a bold one, both in terms of the actual performance as well as the thematic concerns. What's most interesting here is how the film deals with how social media can build faux-hype, leading to the band's inclusion on the South By Southwest music festival bill in Texas, as well as how we often frame mental illness as a road to artistic brilliance. That Frank is automatically hailed by both his bandmates and Jon as some kind of mythical figure conjuring sonic greatness, is crucial to the the way narratives are often framed around reclusive artists, as if their pain and torment is somehow connected to producing works of transformative art.
Frank doesn't delve too deeply into these thematic elements, transiting rather suddenly from a quirky lark to a more sobering study of mental illness without the probing examination the content truly deserves. Still, the fact that the film raises these ideas is noteworthy, and coupled with Abrahamson's brisk direction and Fassbender's willingness to throw himself completely into the role, gives the picture a tactile quality that's never more winning than during the moment when Frank shares his "most likable song ever" to his bandmates. As a film, Frank is also pretty likable, despite a few ill-judged moments of forced comedy and Gyllenhaal's one-note performance as a disdainful foil to Gleeson's blinding optimism. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is it's heart-on-its-sleeves earnestness, using a veneer of sardonic weirdness as a mask, both literal and metaphorical, to exploring the heart of a gentle man going against the status quo.