Whatever you’re expecting from Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, chances are you’re completely wrong. The poster suggests it’s a quirky comedy along the lines of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s not. Frank is about a band of misfit, eccentric musicians slowly imploding, the results being funny, uncomfortable and tragic to watch.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a keyboard player who is taken under the wing of Frank (Michael Fassbender), lead singer of experimental band, the Soronprfbs. Frank wears a Frank Sidebottom papier-mâché head, which he refuses to take off, while the rest of the band are all kinds of dysfunctional. What is supposed to be a weekend touring across Ireland ends up with Jon and the rest of the Soronprfbs shacked up in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, not leaving until Frank’s masterpiece album has been recorded.
Abrahamson’s film is a smart depiction of bands and artists suffering from illusions of grandeur, the fine line between inventiveness and pretentiousness. The problem is that Jon Ronson (who toured with the late Chris Sievey’s comic creation, Frank Sidebottom) and Peter Straughan’s script is a mess, with jarring shifts in tone. There are plenty of bright ideas here, but when they’re mashed together into one ninety-minute film, these ideas don’t come across as well as they should.
Frank has some truly funny moments: Jon’s reaction as he watches Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara and Frank take one of his catchy melodies and turn it into something genuinely offensive to the ears; Jon fighting with Frank as he tries removing the man’s oversized head; best of the bunch, Frank trying to write what he calls a “likeable song”. The script also throws in brutally honest observations about suicide. Music has been a way for many artists to confront their demons, yet what happens when being in a band becomes stifling? The Soronprfbs have no audience; their fourteen hour days writing music is going nowhere and the band are struggling to cope. The only band member who seems fine with the way things are is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s theremin player, Clara. Despite her hostile, violent personality, she acts as a mother to Frank, feeling responsible for him. Clara knows Frank can’t cope with commercial success, hence why she goes out of her way to ensure no one hears the band’s music. As well as all this you have Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon, who has his own ideas as to which direction the band should be heading; one where he gets fame, fortune, and thousands of Twitter followers.
These are all strong ideas, the problem is you can have one scene where you’re snorting with laughter, followed by the next scene, which throws themes of suicide and mental illness full pelt at the viewer. Very often, Frank is awkward to sit through as you occasionally find yourself wondering just what the hell you’re watching.
What definitely works here is the acting. Fassbender is nothing short of incredible, spending the majority of the film with his face hidden. Wearing a papier-mâché head and coming up with all sorts of zany ideas to create music, it would be all too tempting to portray Frank as larger-than-life, but Fassbender gives a gentle, subtle performance, making you care about a man who struggles to convey what is going on inside his real, flesh and blood head. Domhall Gleeson is, once again, brilliant. He’s a great character actor, whether it’s child-like and sinister (the Black Mirror episode, Be Right Back) or clumsy and socially awkward (About Time). Here Gleeson has a naïve charm about him as Jon, while also being far from whiter-than-white. He manipulates Frank into helping him on the road to success, getting the band a gig at the South by Southwest festival. It’s only when the inevitable damage has been done that Jon ends up feeling guilty, trying his best to fix things. Maggie Gyllenhaal gets the balance between being venom-spittingly anti-social, but hiding a tender, vulnerable side absolutely spot on. She’s not over-the-top, as several reviews have suggested, she is wholly believable whenever she is onscreen (the funny as hell sex scene in a hot tub where, during her ferocious, animal-like rutting Gyllenhaal very nearly drowns Gleeson, is another priceless moment).
The best film I’ve seen centred around the music industry is Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, a bonkers mix of irreverent comedy and Icarus fall from grace drama. Whether it’s down to the genius of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script, Michael Winterbottom’s direction, or sheer blind luck, the pace and tone goes all over the place, yet the film absolutely, one-hundred-percent works. Sadly the same can’t be said for Frank. Lenny Abrahamson deserves praise for being so straight-talking about mental illness – it’s touching, heart-breaking stuff at times – but the whole thing doesn’t sit well. Abrahamson expects us to laugh at the Soronprfbs’ barmy behaviour, then punch us in the gut with powerful insights into mental illness, and then follows this up with even more offbeat humour. There’s no reason why a film with this structure can’t work, but it feels like Abrahamson and screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan decided to throw everything at the wall and if it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t matter.
Frank has some well thought-out, eye-openingly original laughs, whilst also making you well up because of how honest it is. You get the sense that Abrahamson wants people to be comfortable talking about mental illness, that it’s not something we should be shy or coy about; occasionally we should even laugh about it. The problem is that the way Abrahamson has translated this onscreen, most of the time, doesn’t work. Frank deserves points for being one-of-a-kind, but it’s not the eccentric masterpiece that the film’s poster suggests.
3 out of 5