Frank Lenny Abrahamson
Published Aug 15, 2014Fourteen minutes into Frank, our protagonist Jon is dissuaded from asking why Frank (Michael Fassbender) goes through life wearing a giant papier-mâché head: "Look, Jon, you're just going to have to go with this." It's a message to the audience, too. If we spend too much time fixating on why the exceedingly handsome Fassbender is wearing a giant papier-mâché head, we will miss the best bits of this sublime little film.
Frank is a dark comedy about a band, Soronprfbs, made up of odds and ends including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on theremin, Frank on vocals and Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) on keys. At the film's outset, Soronprfbs' manager Don (Scoot McNairy) recruits wage slave wannabe Jon to fill in for a gig when its keyboard player tries to drown himself, then asks Jon to join the band as it ventures into the Irish countryside to record an album. There, Jon sees firsthand what it takes to be in a band, something he's wanted his whole life.
Jon is the lens through which we see Frank's story, and the fictional audience in the film gets to know Soronprfbs via Jon's tweets and YouTube videos. (Frank was inspired by the Frank Sidebottom character Chris Sievey created, and was co-written by Jon Ronson, who played with Sievey in either the Freshies or the Frank Sidebottom Band.) Jon has very little self-awareness and perhaps less musical ability, but he believes the band can be big. He even negotiates them (via Twitter DMs, no less) into a spot at South by Southwest. The band's SXSW dice-roll sets up both its climax and its denouement.
Films about bands (Almost Famous and, weirdly, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World come to mind) are invariably less about music and more about band dynamics and interpersonal relationships. This one is no exception. The best parts of Frank are found in how everyone relates to Frank, who is loved, venerated and protected in equal measure. Don calls Frank "the sanest cat I ever met" but also reveals they met in a mental hospital; Clara distrusts Jon almost instinctively and is angry with him constantly, and it feels like she's shielding Frank from him; and Frank is pleasant and loving until he's switched-off or irrational. Jon seemingly wants only to — wait for it — get inside Frank's head.
In being a film that is at least somewhat about mental illness, Frank is somewhat frustrating, as its loveliest moments (and there are plenty) are coloured by the notion that mental illness is a one-size-fits-all thing and that "crazy" people are inherently more creative than "normal" people. This is problematic. And yet still, it's hard to not sit back and enjoy Fassbender's wonderful performance and drink in the beautiful weirdness of this whole endeavour.