Film Review: Frank

An offbeat comedy about music and mental illness that never finds its rhythm.

It’s been fairly well-established that you have to be a little bit crazy to pursue rock stardom as an actual career goal. Even by the standards of musical maniacs both outré (Alice Cooper) and benign (Bono), though, Frank, the eponymous central character played by Michael Fassbender in Lenny Abrahamson’s small-scale rock comedy, clearly has some serious issues. A resident of a mental institution in his younger years, Frank suffers from what seems like a severe social anxiety disorder that makes interacting with other people difficult. At the same time, he's also got a passion for music that he wants to share with a wider audience.

So in order to place a buffer between himself and the rest of the world, Frank walks around with a giant plaster head—complete with painted-on eyes and hair, as well as a hole for a mouth—on top of his actual head, which causes him to look like one of those bobblehead dolls come to life. It's goofy, but that head is an essential part of his being, so much so that he can't bring himself to take it off, even in the shower. He's enabled in this lifestyle choice by his friends and fellow musicians who are part of his underground band The Soronprfbs, including protective Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), sullen Baraque (François Civil), largely silent drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Perhaps not surprisingly, Frank's companions—especially Clara—are as odd as the front man; traveling around the British countryside in a beat-up van, they seem less like a rock band and more like a group of mental patients on an extended field trip.

Into this fragile but functional group comes the one "normal" person in the movie, a struggling musician named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who would like to be the next Elton John or Billy Joel, but lacks both the inspiration and the talent. Still, he's solid enough on the keyboard to take the stage with The Soronprfbs at a local pub in his hometown when their previous keyboardist completely loses his marbles. Though the gig ends prematurely, Jon's delight at playing for a live audience crowd as part of a real band (as opposed to tickling the plastic ivories alone in his room) leads him to overlook some very clear warning signs and embed himself amongst the group after they set down roots at a remote cottage with the vague intention of recording an album. He's so devoted to their cause, and so blind to the reality of his situation, that he sinks his own nest egg into this foolhardy venture when the band's limited funds run short. It's at his urging as well that The Soronprfbs eventually decamp from Europe and head to Austin, Texas's renowned South by Southwest festival, where Jon is convinced they'll finally find fame and fortune. Needless to say, these dreams of grandeur reveal him to be almost as crazy as everyone else in the band.

Frank was co-written by author and journalist Jon Ronson, who has made a career out of shining a light on the oddballs and outcasts too often ignored by mainstream society. This particular story is derived from the life of British musician and comic Chris Sievey, whose musical alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, is the direct model for this Frank right down to the comically oversized head. It's important to note, however, that Sidebottom was just an act for Sievey, who passed away in 2010. Ronson and his collaborators, including fellow scribe Peter Straughan and director Lenny Abrahamson, have added on the mental-illness angle and make the questionable choice to approach it in a gently comic manner, following in the tradition of such films as Lars and the Real Girl and It's Kind of a Funny Story.

It's a tricky tone to pull off, especially when handled as imprecisely as it is here. The problem with Frank isn't Frank himself, thanks to Fassbender's refusal to soften the character’s prickly edges, transforming him into the kind of cutesy-poo innocent Ryan Gosling played in Lars. The actor is clearly interested in getting at the pathology of this man instead of just playing his quirks for easy laughs as too many of his co-stars do—Gyllenhaal in particular, whose rages feel so artificial, it's like she's performing between air quotes. No, the source of the movie's troubles mainly stem from Gleeson, a likable actor trapped playing a character who is so profoundly insensitive, not to mention willfully ignorant, that he quickly becomes a major drag to spend time with. With Jon, rather than Frank, as the film's focal point, Frank flails about trying to establish a consistent rhythm, but mostly ends up striking false notes.

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