‘Frank’: Quirky comedy has serious undertones

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Before I tell you the premise of “Frank,” please allow me to advise you that this Anglo-Celtic film has some endearing qualities. If I tell you the farfetched premise at the outset, you may surmise that the film is unduly farfetched and twee. You may understandably rule out ever seeing it. That was my initial inclination.

The eponymous character of Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the lead singer of an underground rock quintet. He has attracted a cadre of similarly quixotic musicians; Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall); who plays the theremin (is that a sufficiently obscure instrument for you?); bassist, Baraque (Francois Civil); drummer, Nana (Carla Axar); and a soon-to-depart keyboardist. Don (Scott McNairy) is the band’s verbose manager. They all regard Frank as a musical visionary and genius. However, it remains unclear how they have all reached this fervent belief.

This is less of a band than a cult, which is devoted to worshipping Frank and remaining obscure at all costs. To begin with, the name of the band is Soronprfbs. Don’t worry reader-your eyes haven’t gone out of focus. That’s right-the name of the band is Soronprfbs. As becomes evident midway through the film, no one in the band even knows how this oddball, vowel-challenged name should be pronounced. None of them seem to think that is a big deal that they never bothered to decide on this salient element of brand development. Francophones, Baraque and Nana, don’t speak English and no one in the band is conversant in French.

I haven’t reached the strangest part of the film’s set-up yet. Although Frank has inspired the adulation of his bandmates and manager, he has a certain foible. Frank wears a spheroidal, papier-mâché head. It features a well-ventilated design and is equipped with built-in microphone, which renders him audible. The carapace is replete with unblinking eyes and a fixed grin permanently plastered on it. Is this a stage prop, which is worn only at gigs, in the gimmicky world of popular entertainment? Nope-none of his colleagues have ever seen Frank’s face. Is Frank obfuscating a deformed or disfigured visage? None of them seems to think that it is a relevant question. Frank forgoes the ingestion of solid food. He subsists on liquid potions, which he imbibes through a straw. Whenever Frank takes a shower, he dons a clear plastic bag to prevent his papier-mâché head from getting soaked. It remains unclear how Frank he can brush his teeth, wash his face, or scratch an itch beneath the surface of his artificial head. Is this a mere oddity or evidence of clear mental illness?

The film’s P.O.V. is provided by Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). He is a ginger-haired office drone. He is an aspiring songwriter, who cranks out incomplete jingles on his Casio player. Jon evidences much more in the way of appetite for popularity than any substantive talent.

One day, Jon is out for a walk to the beach. He observes a pair of ploicemenrescuing a man, who has attempted to drown himself. The Soronprfbs posse stands nearby. It turns out that the man just pulled from the surf, is the band’s depressed keyboardist. Jumping on the opportunity, Jon volunteers that he can play the keyboard. The band’s manager asks whether he can play C, F and G. When Jon responds that he can play these perfunctory chords, he is hastily hired to play at a gig on the following night. No rehearsals are involved. The gig proves to be a total disaster.

Afterwards, Jon joins the band for a jaunt to Ireland. He assumes that it is for another isolated gig. Accordingly, he packs a single pair of spare slacks and calls his supervisor to advise him that he will miss a day of work. However, when he arrives at a remote cabin complex, he learns that the band is going to record an avant-garde concept album. They will allocate as much time as necessary to complete it.

As he amply demonstrated in last year’s “About Time,” Domhnall Gleeson has an eminently likable screen presence. The son of acclaimed Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson, he provides the audience with a character with whom they can identify. At the epicenter of the film is the fact that Clara, Baraque, and Nana are intensely hostile to Jon, without any provocation. The three of them are constitutionally disagreeable jerks. They contrast with Jon, who persistently exudes an upbeat enthusiasm and kindness. Jon’s surreptitious tweeting about the band provides them with an unexpected booking at SXSW. This represents a huge opportunity for the band. Instead of eliciting their gratitude, Jon’s efforts buttress the trio’s antipathy toward him. Do they resent him simply for having a pragmatic agenda?

The film is immersed in the microcosm of those afflicted with mental illness. Jon is the isolated member of the core cast, who appears to be sane. He seems to be extremely well-grounded, albeit eager for recognition. Don insists that Frank is the sanest person he has ever met. However, Don reveals that he had been involuntarily committed for his psychiatric condition. Does his assessment of Frank’s sanity have any credibility? Clara is consumed with a constant psychopathological rage and is subject to volatile outbursts. However, Clara is nevethleless flabbergasted when Jon questions her about any history of institutionalization. Baraque and Nana are also steeped in irrationality. Then, there is Frank himself. What is the putative relationship between his creativity and his eccentricity?

Two of the film’s best vignettes take place successively near its denouement. The scenes have fundamentally different tones.  They both take place as a result of Jon’s good-hearted, well-intentioned efforts to track down Frank, after he has seemingly experienced a nervous breakdown. Jon visits the home of Frank’s parents in Bluff, Kansas.

The conceit in the comedic scene is that Jon has never seen Frank’s visage. He approaches a thirtyish man standing on the lawn, whom he assumes to be Frank. Jon launches into a heartfelt soliloquy with the man. The befuddled guy advises Jon that his name isn’t Frank. He’s just a tree surgeon there to provide an estimate for the homeowners.

This is typical of the film’s effective use of every day characters for grounding. In addition to the tree surgeon (Travis Hammer), there are Jon’s doting parents (Moira Booker, Paul Butterworth), a German vacationer (Rosalind Archer), two helpful SXSW administrative aides (Hayley Derryberry, Lauren Poole), an attractive television interviewer (Katie Anne Mitchell), a diner in a Chinese restaurant (Dean Satriano), and a hillbilly, who is totally oblivious to the Frank cult phenomenon (Kevin Wiggins). Collectively, they provide a studied contrast to the film’s untethered characters and their jaundiced attitudes.

The film then pivots adroitly to one its most poignant scenes. It involves Frank’s parents (Tess Harper, Bruce McIntosh). They describe Frank’s past psychological struggles. This provides a sobering perspective on the issue of mental illness.

Frank is inspired by the late English musician, Chris Sievey. He fronted for the group, The Freshies, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He later developed a stand-up comedy routine under the stage name of Frank Sidebottom. Sievey wore a giant head, evocative of the one featured in the film. However, there are significant differences between Sievey and the film’s protagonist. Sievey only wore the head at gigs not as a constant anatomical addendum. Unlike the protagonist, he did not eschew commercial success, but seemed quite intent upon courting it. Although Sievey may have had his foibles, there is little to suggest that he suffered from overt mental illness. Based on his days as a keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, Jon Ronson wrote  a  memoir. Along with Peter Straughan, Ronson also co-wrote the film’s screenplay, which adopts a contemporary setting.

Much of the film involves a one-joke set-up, which is played for broad laughs. “Frank” often devolves into silliness and gratuitous absurdity.

At other junctures, the film embodies an unexpected earnestness. It frankly, if fleetingly, examines the relationship between mental illness and the creative process. A winning performance by Domhnall Gleeson might be the film’s greatest attribute. These mitigating virtues make “Frank” worth seeing.

*** R (for language and some sexual content) 95 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerner prose@gmail.com.


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