Sunday, September 7, 2014

Frank


Grade: 70/B

There’s a danger in conflating eccentricity with creativity, something Frank plays with knowingly if not always deftly. Its titular figure is first introduced as an eccentric genius whose bizarre behavior is tied directly to his musical brilliance. It’s only as the film goes on and his behavior grows even more erratic and disturbed that it’s suggested that there might be something darker and sadder in him, and that it’s actually hurting him.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a mediocre keyboardist and terrible songwriter who gets a lucky break playing for the oddball band Soronprfbs (your pronunciation guess is as good as anyone’s) after their previous keyboardist tries to drown himself. Jon and the rest of the Soronprfbs relocate to a cabin in Ireland to record an album, but they won’t record a note until their eccentric singer and leader Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a large papier-mǎché head, is satisfied. While there, Jon posts videos of their rehearsals and drums up interest in the band at SXSW Music Festival. But when they arrive in America to play the gig, Jon starts to get a sense that Frank’s strange behavior isn’t an act or an extension of his creativity.

Truth be told, Frank is never funnier than in the opening scene, where Jon walks around Dublin trying to write a song, with piss-poor results (“Lady in the red coat/ what you doin’ with that bag?!”). Later scenes with the Soronprfbs at the cabin often take on a tone of strained wackiness, with Jon’s pleasant narration contrasting scenes of Frank chasing people around or pushing Jon to pretend he’s laying an egg a bit too bluntly.

The cabin scenes are more effective (and, honestly, funnier) when they’re quieter, when Frank’s welcoming tone is undercut by the his eternally hostile sidekick/theremin player Clara (a very funny Maggie Gyllenhaal) taking on a blatantly fake welcoming tone, or by the fact that he’s wearing a giant mask on his head. One of the better recurring gags in the film comes from the latter bit, as Frank tries to be accommodating to the mild-mannered Jon by describing his facial expressions (much to the annoyance of Clara).

The film also captures the excitement of creating music better than nearly any other film in recent memory. Before the band’s first performance goes terribly wrong, there’s a strange mythic quality to it, as if we’re seeing something new and original suddenly crash land on earth. The film is equally effective when dealing with the less central band members’ songs; Scoot McNairy’s depressed bandmate worships Frank to the point where he can’t recognize that his own song is actually pretty good rather than terrible; this scene is funny, if a bit sad, at first, and grows more painful as the events of the film unfold.

As Frank, Michael Fassbender is as committed and as fascinating as ever. Deprived of his expressive, handsome face, he’s pushed to express more with his body and his usually calm voice. He does work of incredible physicality and vocal elasticity, from low mumbles to guttural cries (the song “Secure the Galactic Perimeter”), inviting tenor to birdlike cries. It’s a perfect fit for the character, who, depending on the scene, is either a soothing presence or a more volatile figure.

The film’s second half leans on that, occasionally coming back to the broad comedy (Frank writes his “most likable song ever,” a funny Dadaist jumble, in an effort to be more accessible) and incongruity (Gyllenhaal doing a hilariously glum version of the usually annoyingly peppy song “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper”) of the first half. Frank’s behavior, which took after the odd showboating of British performer Frank Sidebottom (who wore a similar head) and the strange perfectionism of Captain Beefheart starts to go to more troubling places, revealing a manic-depressive side that’s harmful to himself and others (think Syd Barrett or Daniel Johnston). He may be a musical genius, but he’s also severely mentally ill, and at a certain point Jon and company’s worship of the genius Frank started to do catastrophic damage to the troubled Frank.

If there’s a problem with Frank, it’s that it doesn’t always have a good grasp on when it’s laughing at Frank and when it isn’t. Its use of Gleeson as an audience surrogate is clever: he goes from laughing at Frank to worshipping him to realizing that he’s been laughing at and worshipping a disturbed man. We go on a similar journey that somewhat justifies the comedy of the first half, but there’s still something a bit uneasy about how broadly it’s played. Upon rewatching the film, I felt like I should have a new understanding of those scenes, with clear reasons for anyone in the know about Frank’s illness that he shouldn’t be laughed at, much like I did with McNairy’s scenes. Instead, they still played as broadly comic.

But that doesn’t negate what the film is going for entirely. If anything, it makes Frank a more interesting film, if a flawed one. The laughs director Lenny Abrahamson aims for in the first half feel tonally off, but there’s also a sense of purpose to the discomfort, less an indictment of our view of mental illness than a plea for empathy and understanding. Besides, without the film’s strange arc, it’s hard to believe that Fassbender’s final song, a heartfelt if characteristically odd tune called “I Love You All,” would be half as moving. It takes an initial fascination with the strangeness of the character for the humanity to shine through.

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