Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Movie Review: Frank

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson.
Written by: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan.
Starring: Michael Fassbender  (Frank), Domhnall Gleeson (Jon Burroughs), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Clara), Scoot McNairy (Don), François Civil (Baraque), Carla Azar (Nana), Hayley Derryberry (Simone), Lauren Poole (Alice), Tess Harper (Frank's Mom), Bruce McIntosh (Frank's Dad).

There is a myth that great artists must suffer to achieve their art – a myth that is perpetuated by many works of art about artists. Think of almost any biopic of a great artist or musician, and you’ll most likely find a story about mental illness, abuse, poverty, drug addiction, etc. There is also another myth – that everyone has something of interest to say, some talent in them waiting to get out, and that if you just want it enough, and just work hard enough, you can achieve anything. But sometimes that just isn’t true – mental illness, abuse, poverty and drug addiction do not really fuel creativity – they hinder it. And not everyone has something of value to add to the whole wide world – no matter how much they want it. These are the basic themes behind Frank, and they are harsh truths that must movies do not acknowledge. Yet, I think the movie somewhat undercuts its rather harsh message by disguising it all as a quirky comedy, that doesn’t dig into its characters, or its themes, quite deep enough. The movie simply skims the surface of its darker themes – although it must be said that it is a rather pleasant surface.

The stars Domhnall Gleeson as Jon – a 20-something British office drone, who fancies himself a musician – although the songs we hear him trying to compose in the film’s opening scenes are quite simply awful. One day, he sees an odd thing happening at the beach – a man trying to drown himself, while the paramedics try to haul him out, and a van of onlookers stand by. They are a band – and he was their keyboardist, and has gone crazy, leaving them a man short for their shown that night. “I can play keyboards”, Jon volunteers – and just like that a strange journey begins. The lead singer in the band is Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant paper mache head everywhere he goes. The rest of the band think he’s a genius – and soon they’ll all holed up at a cabin in the middle of nowhere Ireland “recording” their new album. Jon is won over by Frank – but the rest of the band, including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hate his guts. His only real ally is Don (Scoot McNairy) – the band’s manager.

As the movie moves along, it becomes clear that Frank is not just “eccentric”, but is actually suffering from some sort of serious mental illness. The band is really just his enablers – they allow him to dictate everything they do, which doesn’t include very much actual recording of music for months on end. And Jon simply envies Frank – figuring he must have suffered throughout his life to make him the genius that he is. The music we do hear – and we don’t hear nearly enough of it in the movie – is a strange psychedelic, electronic growl, with impenetrable lyrics – that I actually quite liked, but is clearly not made for mass consumption. But Jon thinks the band can actually be popular – they should just write more “likable” songs. While at first, his bandmates hostility towards him seems unfounded – he really may as damaging to Frank that they think they are. When they finally leave Ireland – and head to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest, the movie takes a darker turn.

There is a lot to like about Frank – from the music, to Fassbender’s fully committed performance behind a paper mache head, which somehow does not prevent him from creating the most fully realized character in the film. Gleeson is also quite good as the delusional Jon – who cannot see himself, or really anything around him, clearly. These two characters are the heart of the film – the rest of the cast isn’t really given much to do, even talented actors like McNairy and Gyllenhaal are basically wasted – and they represent the dual themes mentioned above.

But I don’t think director Lenny Abrahamson is quite able to navigate the story’s dark turn as it moves along. The score is distracting – overly cute, quirky indie score, which is at odds with the music that Frank and his band produces. And the last act feels like it should be much darker than the tone of the film that he actually achieves. There is real stuff going on beneath the surface here – but the film pulls some punches. It must be said though that the final scene in the movie is probably the best – and the most moving – in the film.

I wanted to like Frank more than I actually did. I think there is a lot of interesting stuff going on beneath the surface of the film – but I don’t think the movie quite knows how to handle it. The film is more serious, and darker than I assumed a film about a man in a giant paper mache head would be – but had it fully embraced its darker themes, it could have been great, instead of average.

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