Frank Review (2014) | Can't Stop the Movies
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Frank (2014)

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Frank is an enigmatic musician who wears a large fake plastic head, which for the fawning members of his band only adds to his genius. Frank is played by Michael Fassbender. This is all you need to know.

**The movie is currently available to rent on demand from Amazon while it's in theaters.

Frank and the BandKyleLikeNew

Frank has quite the extended opening sequence. A twenty-something guy walks around a small town in Ireland trying desperately to wring songwriting inspiration from everything, anything, he sees. We hear his inner monologue rattle off mundane, obvious half-formed lyrics as he looks at the ocean, band posters on a streetcorner, and people that walk by (one gem consists of repeating “lady in the blue coat do you know the lady in the red coat”). It's a dryly funny look at creativity and the frustration inherent in trying to force inspiration—it also establishes an undercurrent that runs throughout the entirety of Frank, the struggle against and fear of mediocrity. The young man (Jon Burroughs, played by Domhnall Gleeson) eventually returns home, struck with true inspiration, and gets a few bland lines down at his keyboard before the whole thing falls apart into nonsense. He then tweets that he's been “working hard on songs all day” and “now it's time for dinner.”

Jump to Jon sitting on a park bench by a beach, witnessing a man being pulled flailing from the water by paramedics. He asks a group of people standing nearby (who he correctly identifies as a band playing at a local venue that night) what's going on, and is told calmly “our keyboardist is trying to drown himself.” Jon, as has been established in the opening scene, plays the keyboard, and is soon their replacement for the night. When he arrives later at the venue for practice, every member of the band seems to be playing their own song at once, and the the other keyboardist in the group (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) electrocutes herself on her equipment as Frank, the lead singer, walks out wearing a gigantic plastic head reminiscent of those old Mr. Bill sketches. Roll titles. All of this takes about 4-5 minutes to play out.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Frank

Maggie Gyllenhaal is really good here even though she gets shorted by a role that's basically a one-dimensional caricature, so here's a screenshot at the top of the review in her honor.

These initial few scenes are a good indication of what the audience is in for with Frank, which can vacillate instantaneously between silly and farcical, and a darker, more bizarre surrealism. We never know exactly where we're headed, which can be a good thing but is also part of the movie's biggest problem. At its heart Frank doesn't quite seem to know what it's about, and as it moves through its different stages we feel like director Lenny Abrahamson may have had more enthusiasm for each larger idea he's trying to hit than for a single, unified experience. That the resulting scattered and uneven experience is still likely to be one of the more interesting ones you'll find in a movie this year is as impressive as it is baffling.

The first act works more consistently than any other portion, as Jon finds himself retreating to a cabin in the woods with the band while they record their debut album. Here both Abrahamson's direction and the screenplay by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan are the most confident in film's first major idea: the way a sense of romantic tortured “genius” is manufactured and cultivated by those wishing to apply it to another.

At the cabin Frank leads the band in escalatingly bizarre activities he justifies through claims that he's pushing them toward “more pure music.” Jon relates with confused admiration Frank's insistence that the crew take several days to record random sounds outside in nature (water flowing into a metal bucket, Maggie Gyllenhall swinging a switch, Frank jumping in a field). Frank calls this “field work.”

Frank Doing Some Field Work

The band recording some of Frank's "field work" at the cabin.

These scenes work because the movie's casual observance of such ridiculous practices contrasts appropriately with Jon's growing admiration—an admiration we can see and hear being actively, forcefully cultivated by Jon himself. He records the whole experience via a personal blog and clips posted to YouTube, and Gleeson's voice over in these moments perfectly encapsulates a mix of panic and naive enthusiasm. Jon desperately wants Frank to be the genius the other band members keep saying he is—never providing any evidence aside from his eccentricity—because then he will be a genius by association. One of the funniest running gags in the movie is Jon's continual insistence that the band is “on the verge of a genuine breakthrough.”

The character of Frank—played entirely under the giant plastic head with a muffled middle-America “accent” by Michael Fassbender, part of the should-be-in-every-movie brigade—is a wonderfully weird creation during the first act, but one that also starts to betray some of the film's uncertainty in itself. He alternates between a seemingly intentional send up of a quirky, unconfident musical-genius-type—as when he creates “an entirely new musical notation system” that consists of randomly placed, color-coded signs on a large circular diagram, or his habit of describing his current facial expression underneath his large fake head. But at others the movie dips too far into actually seeming to admire these shallowly affected notions of Frank as a genius—as when he improvises a song about a loose thread in a blanket and Jon watches in awe.

Frank Playing the Keyboard

Fassbender achieves consistently impressive comic effect using mainly his body language.

During these segments the film is filled with whimsical, silly elements fit somewhat carelessly into the story. The timeline suddenly jumps ahead one year with no major changes save for a character suddenly donning a huge beard. There's a running theme where band members try to drown themselves in bodies of water. Then the plot takes a turn once the band finishes their album, as Jon realizes his attempts at recording the entire process on the internet have gained the band (and him specifically) a steadily growing social media following.

Here Frank becomes more about representation and cultivation of celebrity in a digital culture, and Abrahamson, Ronson, and Straughan become more concerned with how social media can be used to shape and promote the kinds of mysterious-genius myths the band members apply to Frank, but at a distance. As Jon works to get the band more exposure, the movie morphs into a story about him creating and manufacturing his own sense of celebrity self-importance as Frank's deteriorates—and it moves eventually to a somewhat surprising, painful point the implications of which aren't ever totally clear.

Frank is not perfect: the relentlessly quirky soundtrack often seems like it's trying too hard to inject extra whimsy; early on Jon alternates between amusingly optimistic and aloof, but at others his cluelessness—and Frank's relentless faux-yogi wisdom about how their music will “emerge”—seems cliché and lazy. But Fassbender is perfect here, and it's probably worth watching the movie if for nothing else than the hilarious and surreal surprise of Frank's attempt to write a pop song—which he refers to as “creating extremely likeable music.” That Frank sounds perpetually like he's doing an impression of Val Kilmer doing an impression of Jim Morrison also never manages to get old.


Frank's plastic head may make for easy visual comedy, but as the movie gets into darker territory it has a wonderfully surreal effect.

And the movie is all over the place, especially in its ending, which doesn't know which of the many threads (manufacturing of a following, projecting images of tortured genius, comparing the vapid loyalty of social media followings to the cult of celebrity) to wrap up, or even to address. The final scene is the most surreal of the movie because we're not entirely sure how to take it—as an emotional resolution to a character conflict or as a pitch-black satirical take on films that end with a callback to better times.

That said, Frank is more interesting in its flaws than a lot of movies are in their success. It undermines the myth that creativity and creative genius—music in this case—must come from tragedy and torment, and criticizes the myths we embrace to make said creativity more complex and romantic. That it ultimately undermines itself in making this point is a little strange, but then it's also a movie about a man who wears a huge plastic head. So.

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Tail - FrankFrank (2014)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Screenplay written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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