A commentary on the false romance of the mentally unstable artistMovie Review, Section 4A Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
When Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) first sees Frank (Michael Fassbender), the lead singer of a ragtag little rock band for which he is randomly hired to play keyboards, his reaction is probably that of most of the audience watching the film Frank: What the hell? Here is a man with a giant, cartoonish fake head covering his actual head. He doesn’t take it off, ever – even to wash, to eat, or, as Jon notes, horrified, to brush his teeth. Without any facial expressions and with a mostly muffled voice, Frank is still able to exude charisma, and the band follows him to whatever place, mentally or physically, he wants to go.
Jon is a struggling songwriter in a dead-end job, and he joins up with the band (which is written as “Soronprfbs” but not pronounced by anyone) because it seems to be the only way he can make music. At first he is astonished by Frank and confused by the other band members (including Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy), all of whom are as mentally unstable as Frank, but then he drinks the Kool-Aid and becomes enamored with Frank and determined to make Soronprfbs an international success. By secretly Tweeting about Frank’s bizarre recording process and uploading YouTube clips of their strange performances, Jon gets the band enough attention to be invited to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where everything goes awry.
To say that Frank is a strange movie is perhaps unnecessary at this point. It is worth saying that it’s pretty wonderful, despite and because of its oddness. The film is very loosely based on the musician and comedian Chris Sievey and his alter ego, the large-headed Frank Sidebottom, who were both minor celebrities in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s. The only real similarity between the film’s Frank and the original Frank is the head, as Sievey was not mentally ill, did take off his head occasionally, was successful for a while and died in 2010, while the film takes place last year. But Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay does something more interesting than a straight biopic of an odd duck; instead, they and director Lenny Abrahamson created a film that comments on the false romance of the mentally unstable artist, on the emptiness of Internet celebrity, and on what it means to be authentic, even while wearing a mask.
At its most basic, Frank is about a normal guy who has abnormal experiences. Jon is who most of the audience identifies with; he’s a bland schlub in suburban Britain who dreams of something bigger that he doesn’t quite have the talent to become. He reacts to Frank as we would, with confusion and then a kind of affection, since Frank is sweet, eager and sensitive. Gleeson, who is set to star in the next Star Wars film, is perfect as our guide into this weird world, wide-eyed and naïve at first before developing an unearned ego in his quest for greatness. He is a sly comedian and a natural everyman.
Fassbender, whose face is hidden for almost the entire film, manages to be a convincing cult figure solely through his voice and brilliantly awkward physical expressions. Gyllenhaal has a two-dimensional character to play – a hateful goth queen – but she makes Clara indelible. And Scoot McNairy, becoming one of the best character actors working today, delivers his off-kilter, often revelatory one liners with prickly subtlety. All of the actors have great fun with Ronson and Straughn’s screenplay (based on Ronson’s newspaper article), which is full of snark, quirk and irony, all of which combine to deliver a few profound and sincere messages.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy and Michael Fassbender
On demand for rental on Amazon and iTunes
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