Takes itself a bit seriously, but is best if enjoyed for its weirdness.
No matter the mixed criticism of Frank, one thing the film makes obvious is more bands should be using theremins. That’s not just a frivolous statement, it’s part of the movie’s sugarcoated message on the value of sticking out, embracing your limits, and not concerning oneself with the number of views one’s video gets on YouTube. Once the movie stops being a whimsical comedy about a troupe of misfit musicians, it starts to take itself a little too seriously and all of a sudden the xylophone stops and the brooding drama starts. This drastic tonal switch from quirky silliness to serious quirkiness ultimately drags Frank down from being a good comedy to being just a mediocre dramedy. But hey, it has Michael Fassbender playing a guy who wears a ridiculously oversized head so that alone will be enough for some viewers.
Dominic Gleeson takes on the role of Jon, an inspiring singer-songwriter who has 14 followers on Twitter and punches the clock in a dead-end office job. As fate would have it, he witnesses a man trying to drown himself who happens to be the keyboard player of an underground eccentric pop band Jon admires. When he tells the band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy) that he too plays keyboards, he gets the gig, and without further ado finds himself traveling to a remote cabin to record an EP as the band’s new keyboard player. Headlining the band is the mysterious Frank (Fassbender) who is like a walking-talking bobble head because of the outlandish mask he refuses to take off (even while showering.) Rounding off the band members are Clara Vagner (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the Theramin, Nana (Carla Azar) on the drums, and Baraque (François Civil) on the guitar. Once he gets to the cabin, Jon realizes that this is no mere band practice session, and decides to completely devote himself to the band; seeing it as an opportunity to better his own skills. As the Twitter followers grow, and the band spends months preparing to record, an upcoming gig at the South By Southwest festival in Austin creates an opportunity for their biggest show yet. But, with everyone’s eccentricities engaged at maximum levels, how will this band ever be able to cope with fame?
Before the third act sours up the mood, Frank is an enjoyable enough romp filled with a colorful cast of characters and a pleasant atmosphere. Although, it must be said, the insufferable score by Stephen Renicks and Gleeson’s narration evocative of an adventure in Middle Earth or a Hogwarts school excursion paint the picture in way too thick of a dainty coat. With the way the characters are written (we’ll have a French guy who only speaks in French but everyone understands him! We’ll have the bitchy one who hates conformity! Etc.) and the overemphasis on Frank’s free spirit, it all leads to an aggravating sense of self-awareness and attention seeking. The only saviors end up being Gyllenhaal’s hilarious performance (watch her deliver lines like “Your furthest corners? Someone needs to punch you in the face” with perfectly bottled angst), some of Frank’s unpredictable characteristics which include speaking perfect German to an unsuspecting family, and the genuine humor protruding through the dainty surface. And for those wondering about Fassbender’s performance: I’ll just say that he’s best when he’s got the head on and leave it that.
Also deserving of praise is James Mather’s cinematography, adding a nuance that is unexpected. Images of Frank meditating in the forest, or characters caught lamenting by the windowsill are artistically captured and do well to boost the film’s qualities. Alas, the film starts to change clothes before growing into them and while the SXSW section provides some of the biggest laughs (Frank’s most likeable song is a personal favorite of mine,) they ultimately can’t compensate for the transparently calculated conclusion and message, which brings the whole self-awareness aspect right back on centre stage. Fans of Gyllenhaal and Fassbender will still enjoy themselves with Frank, but my advice is not to take the film as seriously as it takes itself and simply enjoy sharing the company of weirdos.
In theaters August 15