Release: Friday, September 5, 2014 (limited)
Written by: Jon Ronson; Peter Straughan
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Any film that strives to turn Domhnall Gleeson into a thoroughly unlikable character is one I’m uncomfortable watching. Frank is just such a film.
Focusing on an aspiring musician who stumbles upon an eccentric pop band with an unpronounceable name (they call themselves The Soronprfbs), this oddball comedy does its best to distance itself from an audience looking to make connections with key characters. Its best is more than enough.
After witnessing a drowning at a local beach, Jon (Gleeson) finds himself being ushered into the band. They have a show to play that night and they need his help filling in on keyboards as that was in fact their keyboardist trying to drown himself. Excited for the opportunity, he shows up for a bizarre display of nonconformist musicianship, the heir apparent to a suicidal keyboardist — what a great guy.
Jon initially assumes his role in the band would be that of a temporary hired-gun. His involvement soon extends to filling in on a more permanent basis as The Soronprfbs seclude themselves in an isolated cabin in the Irish countryside to record a full album. Jon bemoans the fact no one told him this would be more than a weekend gig, citing he has to return to work as soon as possible. His kidnappers don’t much care though, for they have a lot of work to do. Seemingly this is now his job, trying to find a way to fit in amongst a crew of ragtags who themselves don’t fit in elsewhere.
There’s the dude who first offers Jon the chance to play, Don (Scoot McNairy). His determination to become someone he’s not is simultaneously driving him mad. We’ve got the non-English speaking Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar), who don’t do much beyond moping about and remaining wary about Jon’s presence. Then, chief among the antagonists — I’m sure none of these people are meant to be perceived that way but let’s just say these are some talented actors here — is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara, a nutcase who takes an instant dislike to Jon and makes life in the band a living nightmare for him. Her role is akin to that of someone you come across in your early grade school years who constantly picks on you, but all along the bullying is that person’s way of saying they dig your vibe.
Unfortunately the only person’s vibe I can really dig in this oppressively odd film is Michael Fassbender and his papier-mâché head/mask. As Frank, Fassbender is simultaneously the leader of The Soronprfbs and the stand-out acting talent. He’s empathetic given the obviousness and severity of his mental condition. He’ll never remove the head/mask, a fact that yields all sorts of questions ranging from his ability to function in social settings to his general hygiene. Answers to a few of these are admittedly provided with a compelling, brutal honesty when Jon is able to convince the band to make an appearance at the SXSW festival, where he hopes their efforts to represent a very . . . different . . . music experience will finally provide them an audience willing to reciprocate their uniqueness. It’s an undertaking that does not at all go according to plan.
Despite few of the members being likable on any level, it’s clear there are sides to be taken in this awkward, personal tug-of-war. Jon’s main purpose is to become the wedge between Frank and the rest of the band. Amidst the hostility and intolerance that defines The Soronprfbs’ dysfunction there exists this competition to be ‘the next Frank.’ It’s a mentality that explains Clara’s treatment of Jon — she doesn’t believe he has any talent or originality whatsoever and is trying too hard to be like Frank; a mentality that also sums up the fates of other members who have stepped out of the band.
Abrahamson’s fourth directorial effort manifests as a sincere reflection of mental illness but sadly this is a production difficult to enjoy or even sympathize with. An hour-and-a-half featuring people arguing and making something akin to music. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn about any of it.
Recommendation: If kinky films are what you dig, then maybe Frank will be something you might enjoy. With disagreeable characters, languid pacing and a band that makes no sense, it is a difficult one to recommend to anyone else. Even though the characters are largely detestable, my bigger issue is that it combined that with a theme of social anxiety that didn’t really work. Plus the film feels so much longer than 95 minutes would suggest. I was prepared for a different kind of watch, but maybe not one this repellent. It’s almost as if the film was actively trying not to be enjoyable.
Running Time: 95 mins.
Quoted: “Stale beer. Fat f**ked, smoked out. Cowpoked. Sequined mountain ladies. I love your wall. Put your arms around me. Fiddly digits, itchy britches. I love you all.”
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