‘Frank’ (2014) Movie Review

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Frank movie review
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

I guess I can accept the the official plot synopsis description of Frank, calling it “wildly quirky”, but I absolutely cannot find the subsequent “comedy” added to that description within this film’s short running time. I also see where the film wants to question the clash of popularity and eccentricity, the question of whether or not something can be appreciated by the masses as a curiosity alone or must it conform to general norms, thus losing its soul, before it can be wholly accepted? However, I’d just rather read that last sentence and discuss it than watch a bunch of people make nonsense music and bad decisions, which is pretty much all Lenny Abrahamson‘s Frank was to me.

Written by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Frank could first and foremost be looked at as a loving tribute to the late musician and comedian Chris Sievey (aka “Frank Sidebottom“). From the mid-’80s on, Sievey would perform his show wearing a papier-mache head almost exactly like the one worn by Michael Fassbender here as Frank, the leader of a rock ‘n’ roll band with a unique taste in music. They go by the name the Soronprfbs. Need I say more?

The story begins in a small English town with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring musician and songwriter, struggling to come up with his next song and searching the world around him for inspiration when he notices some commotion at the beach. He walks over to find it’s the keyboardist for the aforementioned Soronprfbs gone crazy, sucking down too much sea water and eventually taken to the hospital. Amid the mayhem, Jon meets the band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and casual conversation leads to Jon being offered to fill in as keyboardist for the band’s next gig and ultimately being offered a spot in the band as they head out to a remote cabin to record their new album.

So away they go, off to scare away the wildlife with their racket in the woods, and it’s here that Jon finds he might be out of his element, but his determination won’t allow him to leave. Jon’s first stumbling block is Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a hot-tempered noise maker of a musician that clearly adores and admires Frank and is quite wary of Jon, largely due to his penchant for mainstream and popularity. As the band is searching for their sound, Jon is documenting their ins and outs on Twitter and YouTube without the band’s knowledge, growing a small number of fans, though to Jon it appears their popularity is sky-rocketing, much to his pleasure.

All of the group’s work over the course of several months ultimately leads to a road trip and a show at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, a show this band might not be ready for. A mixture of fragile and boiled personalities conflict as the price of fame might not be worth it to some as it is to others.

I don’t want to be entirely dismissive of Frank as there are things to appreciate and take away from the film, I just didn’t take away what was probably most important, which was any appreciable level of entertainment. That said, Fassbender’s performance of Frank is well constructed, having to rely heavily on body language and voice inflection for the film’s duration, all leading to an equally interesting character twist come the film’s end.

On top of a question of what it means to be famous and popular, and what is lost in the pursuit of such accomplishes, Frank also touches upon mental illness and the line between what is considered ill and “normal”. I know a lot of the film’s moments are meant to be appreciated as darkly comical in their absurdity, but like my inability to find much humor in John Michael McDonagh‘s recent film Calvary, I didn’t find any here. I don’t particularly find the issues being explored funny, especially not as they are presented, which is probably the main reason I didn’t appreciate it as much as others have and most likely will.

Maybe it’s in my approach to Frank that something was lost. I was looking for humor and didn’t find any and when I went looking for something else I found themes and character developments that simply weren’t enough to sustain my interest in what was on screen. That said, Abrahamson doesn’t try and over-stylize the film or give it visual flourishes to incite laughter, which I appreciate because that would have felt false. It’s played largely straight and for the right audience it’s going to hit home with a touch of dark comedy, emotional highs and lows and a “quirky” story made for others, just not me.