(Frank opens today in limited release, so I’m re-posting my review from this year’s L.A. Film Festival.)
Yes, Frank is a movie in which Michael Fassbender spends about 95% of the runtime wearing a huge paper mache mask over his head. That’s the film’s hook, and though it does eventually explore its enigmatic title character, Frank is primarily the story of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young musician who works in an office but spends most of his time trying (and failing) to write compelling songs. When he sees a keyboard player trying to drown himself in the ocean, he happens into becoming the new keyboardist for the unpronouncable “Soronprbs,” an experimental rock band led by Frank (Fassbender), who – yep – wears that mask even when he showers and sleeps.
Thinking he’s heading off for a weekend gig, Jon joins the band on a road trip to Ireland, only to discover that they’re actually moving into a cabin in the woods for as long as it takes them to record their new album. Jon, whose own compositions are poppy and sort of pathetic, is completely out of his element with this group of musicians, which consists of the scruffy Don (Scoot McNairy), the abrasive Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and two other members who barely have lines and don’t really register as characters. Documenting his experience with the band, Jon eventually builds enough of an online following to get Soronprbs a coveted gig at the SXSW music festival. It turns out to be a decision that splits the band into two camps: those who want to perform and try to build an audience, and those who’d rather just do what they’ve been doing (producing some seriously bizarre tunes).
The film is funnier than expected, with Jon’s voiceover providing many of the laughs and his asinine tweets and blog posts (which pop up as text on screen) causing most of the rest. There’s also the obvious inherent comedy in seeing a guy with a giant mask over his head trying to have normal conversations with people. Frank spends almost the entire runtime covered up, and he’s certainly a weird guy, but he’s not entirely socially inept; he supplies the rest of the film’s comedy by offering to narrate his facial expressions out loud to Jon, which made my audience crack up. Gleeson is great as Jon, the audience surrogate, bringing the same level of flustered innocence that he did to last year’s stellar About Time. People praised Tom Hardy’s performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises because he spent the whole movie behind a mask, but at least Hardy’s mask still allowed us to see his eyes. Fassbender is completely covered here, but his physicality and raw talent propel him through the film, giving Frank shades of brilliance, comedy, and tragedy with body language alone.
Frank is about creation, collaboration, and inspiration. It’s a film about making sacrifices for the art you believe in, and about embracing the eccentricities that separate you from everyone else. Interestingly, it’s also about how not everyone can be a true artist – a hard lesson that Jon ultimately comes to learn.
This movie goes completely against the millennial mindset of getting a trophy just for participation. “You’re going to think you can be like Frank, or maybe even that you can be Frank,” one character tells Jon, “but there can only be one Frank.” Real artists are special and can’t be imitated or replaced, no matter how hard you may try. And as this film’s ending reveals, sometimes it’s more important to allow weirdness to be weird instead of trying to twist it into something else. “You’re just going to have to go with this,” someone says early on, and the same can be said for this film’s audience. While Frank certainly won’t be for everybody, the central theme of the movie basically says that that’s OK. Amid offbeat humor and an endearing protagonist, it’s the sort of message that was normal in films from the ’70s but feels bold in today’s selfie-obsessed culture.
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