Editor’s Note: Frank is playing at Cinemapolis 5:10, 7:15 and 9:25 p.m. on all weekends and weekdays, and at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, Saturdays and Sundays.
Ithaca, N.Y. — The problems with Frank, the movie, are worth forgiving for the intense attention it pays to the problems of Frank, the titular character.
Yes, that is Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Inglourious Basterds) hidden away under that papier-mâché head; he plays an odd, and it turns out deeply ill avant-garde musician. What could be an unbearably twee and flippant treatment of mental illness indeed starts that way, as a square twentysomething named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) stands on the outside looking in to Frank’s world, liking all he sees.
Jon calls himself a musician because no one else, aside from his patient parents, would have the nerve. When not futzing around on a keyboard, he roams the streets of Dublin for inspiration. The opening sequence pairs Jon’s out-of-tune lyrics like “Lady in the red coat whatcha doing with that bag?!” with footage of him looking at things or walking past, say, a lady in a red coat carrying a bag. From the start we see that Jon does not have that ‘spark’ of a true artist or even the stamina of an industry player. He is a cipher and pretty annoying, to boot.
After witnessing a man attempt to drown himself in the Irish Sea, Jon learns that the poor guy is a keyboard player for a band called “Soronprfbs.” Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s manager, lets Jon play a few chords for their gig that night, where he is joined by Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Nana (Carla Azar), Baraque (François Civil) and Frank, the man who never takes off that big weird head. Behind Frank swinging his arms and growling non-sequitirs such as, “Gender crouton,” the musicians concoct a primal, euphoric no wave sound that catches Jon by surprise. In a nice shot, a smile overtakes his face as he bangs the keyboards and sings along: This is music!
Well, that gig ends in disaster and things only get worse when the band, with Jon now in tow, shack up in the countryside with the ostensible goal to record an album. Frank leads “field work” (recording ambient sounds like a door being closed or a stick being swung) and bizarre, borderline abusive group bonding activities. Jon goes along with the madness, chipping in his own money and building a mystique for the band with his precious tweets and blog updates. Clara, a Theremin player, hates him on first sight; at one point, she goes still and says, “Someone needs to punch you in the face.” But Frank sees something in Jon, perhaps a modicum of sanity, while Jon sees an unrealized (or maybe it is just a not-yet-commodified) greatness in Frank’s art.
Like I said, things get worse, for the grating sweetness of the first act sours by the second and goes rotten by the third, when music is the last thing on anybody’s mind. Jon’s romantic spin on the band’s quirks is a symptom of both envy and a naïve lack of empathy, which becomes apparent to him only after someone takes his own life and agoraphobia cripples Frank on a SXSW stage. Screenwriters Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson turn the tables on Jon, for sure, not even allowing him to redeem himself in the eyes of his band members. Instead, he investigates Frank’s history and discovers that not much separates his life from Frank’s, except for one big, unknowable thing: Mental Illness. You bet Frank would trade in all his obscure talents in a heartbeat for a life of normalcy.
The way this film evolves its tone and builds its message veers on didacticism. Other times you might worry director Lenny Abrahamson exploits his characters’ problems for inappropriate comedy, especially the slapstick or else bitchy antagonism he mines out of Clara’s undiagnosed mood swings. And there is no excusing the outright desecration of cause-and-effect that is the film’s last messy act.
Yet this is still a necessary film, for it demythologizes the tired Sundance ‘quirk’ with a startlingly self-critical tenacity. In Frank, music is not so much a source of pleasure as a well of pain for the artists who hit so many dead ends in pursuit of its creation. That makes its emergence in the final scene a slaying moment, because while the music is quite emotional to hear, the victory stands so tall because it came at such an ineffable cost.