Frank (2014) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Carla Azar, Francois Civil
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Review published September 2, 2014
Since you can't see my face as you read the words I've typed, I'll just let you know that I'm greeting you to this page with a 'welcoming smile.'
Ostensibly a struggling band dramedy for the hipster set, Frank tells the tale of the difficult road to potential success for an experimental alt-rock group led by an oddball front-man named Frank (Fassbender, X-Men: Days of Future Past), who perpetually wears a papier-mâché/fiberglass dome-head which looks like it is inspired by an old Max Fleischer cartoon. Some might compare the style to that of Jack from the Jack-in-the-Box commercials, but Frank's look in the film is actually modeled after Frank Sidebottom, an alter-ego character created by real-life musician/comedian Chris Sievey for his punk band, The Freshies.
A largely unseen Michael Fassbender spends most of the screen time underneath the mask as Frank, who is set to go to a cabin retreat in rural Ireland in order to create an album with his avant-garde band, Soronprfbs. Jon (Gleeson, About Time) is the new keyboardist in the group, who finds his eccentric band-mates most curious, yet most fascinating artistically, and decides to record their time together in the form of tweets and YouTube postings that have begun to gain them a modest following online.
Frank is directed with almost Wes Anserson-esque quirk by Leonard Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Garage), from a screenplay by The Men Who Stare at Goats duo of Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson. Ronson was actually a keyboardist in Spievey's band for a spell, and drew inspiration from his experiences within the group, cobbling together stories from other well-known and obscure acts of a similar nature (Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, etc.) to make the Frank that appears in the film.
While there is comedy in the film to be sure, the tone of the film grows ever more melancholy as the subject of mental illness among the characters begins to take hold, especially as Frank begins to confront his own difficulties assimilating into so-called normal society when his band starts to gain some notoriety. They say that there's a fine line between genius and insanity, and using Jon, wonderfully portrayed by Gleeson, as a surrogate, we're often left wondering which side of the line Frank's feet stand on. Jon wants to change the music to conform to a more commercial form so that the band is successful, and that conflict between wanting to be loved and wanting to explore fully his self-expression causes a rift within Frank that he hasn't the mental stability to reconcile.
Fassbender continues to be on a roll in taking on projects that are unlike that which he's done before, and certainly the role of Frank scarcely needs an actor of his caliber, given that we never see his facial expressions. And yet, it works nonetheless, as Fassbender infuses Frank with the much-needed charisma to make us care for him, especially when times are down and he's struggling to maintain his enthusiasm for his work. Credit Fassbender for also doing his own singing, as his voice is not the stuff of greatness, and yet it works within the construct of his abstract art and music performance. He's like David Byrne with the vocal delivery of Iggy Pop, except with a mask on the entire time.
By the end of the film, one recognizes that the theme of the movie is as much about the subject of mental illness as it is about a band's quest for success, or the false notion that one needs fame and followers on social media to be content with oneself. More specifically, it is about the difficulties that many afflicted people have in being forced to try to integrate into society in a very fast way, and the detrimental toll that can have on the person's psyche. While Frank could have become a cult classic just by being an off-beat comedy with great, quirky music, credit the filmmakers for trying to do something deeper with the material than just to entertain. We learn that, beneath the proverbial mask of expression those people with mental illness might put on in public, there's a much different story to be revealed going on inside.
©2014 Vince Leo