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Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: Frank

Typically identified as the "movie where Michael Fassbender wears a giant fake head", Frank is based on a stage persona created and portrayed by departed British comedian Chris Sievey. His former band-mate, Jon Ronson, wrote about his experiences on stage with Sievey, a memoir which was then turned into a film that turns Sievey's fairly over the top and aimed at humor Frank Sidebottom into the Daniel Johnston/Captain Beefheart-esque Frank. While the majority of the running time plays for laughs, there's a deadly seriousness under the veneer, as portrayed by Fassbender.

The central figure of the tale is Domhnall Gleeson's Jon (based on the above-mentioned Ronson) a singer-songwriter whose tune-smithing tends to aim toward the banal. After a chance encounter at a quarry, he meets a band in need of a new keyboardist, which ropes him into a gig with an avant garde quartet called Soronprfbs, fronted by the enigmatic Frank. Wearing a giant head which he never removes, that looks like a cross between the old Big Boy hamburger chain figure and radically warped Ken doll face, Frank is the mastermind behind this unpronounceable (by the audience and everyone on screen) band, leading the newly minted five piece to a remote cabin in Ireland to record an album. In the midst of the music experimentation, or chaos to some, Jon gets the idea to archive their sessions on Youtube. This action leads them to some level of notoriety, SXSW, and a not insignificant level of personal strife. 

What sticks out most when watching Frank is its somewhat unexpected tone. Given the type of subject matter we're dealing with, and the level of intensity that Michael Fassbender consistently brings to his performances, you'd be surprised at how light and frothy everything is for the majority of the run-time. Three-fourths of the film is drug along by Gleeson's narration, and each bit of internal dialogue is punctuated for maximum humor. It's not that it's necessarily all that funny a film, but more that its attempts to highlight just how wacky everything going on around Jon is in comparison to his relative normal-ness. Scenes of Frank and his fellow bandmates (one of which is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) recording random objects scraping onto other objects with their titular front-man stating that they should record an entire album of just these sounds in such a jovial manner underscores the somewhat aghast look that the film casts upon these aural misfits.

Then, in the last 20 minutes or so, everything changes. Due a circumstance that builds throughout the first two acts, we finally get an opportunity to see beneath Frank's mask and its actually quite terrifying, but not in a Lon Cheney-The Phantom of the Opera way. Instead, Lenny Abrahamson pulls a massive bait and switch on the audience in the film's swan song that focuses on mental illness and just how randomized its diagnosis can be. There's a powerful message brought to bear when we see scenes of Frank's parents discussing the typically normal childhood that he experienced. It wasn't drugs or abuse that brought on the difficulties that Frank faces on a daily basis, its just something that happened one day, and our lack of understanding of mental illness quickly becomes the point. The final moments are both triumphant and heartbreaking at the same time. It's a feeling unlike any I can recall in recent cinema-going experiences. Then again, when taken on the whole, I could say that about the entire exercise that Abrahamson has crafted.

The fact that this kind of transformative effect is so wonderfully accomplished gives way, or is a consequence of, a tremendous performance from Fassbender. With his leading man features obscured 95% of the time and relaying his dialogue in a vague mid-western accent, it might come as some surprise to viewers that the Oscar Nominated Actor is even in the film. His essaying of the character is  wonderfully eccentric and a step into the slightly surreal, a bit aghast from his typical wheelhouse, but at the same time equally as impassioned. I can't remember anytime the Irish actor made me laugh this hard from his dialogue choices, if ever, but such an occurrence came to bear here.

Frank isn't perfect, having a few sags that, even once you understand the sleight of hand, are still noticeable. At the same time, it's one of the more uniquely enjoyable films I've seen this year that dig beyond just the base pleasures. There's just something there I can't shake, particularly from its final poignant scene. The word that comes to mind is resonance.

For our Atlanta based readers, Frank will be opening at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema this weekend.
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