Friday, September 5, 2014

Blogorium Review: Frank

 As I have been led to believe, Frank (2014) is the prequel to Robot & Frank (2012), which doesn't make a lot of sense to the Cap'n, but we'll go with that. I haven't seen Robot & Frank, and maybe I should so that this review makes more sense, but based on the IMDB synopsis it seems like the "Frank" character that Michael Fassbender is playing grows older and becomes the "Frank" that Frank Langella plays. Or maybe he's the robot. I'm not sure. I never pictured Fassbender's Frank becoming a jewel thief (SPOILER if you haven't seen Robot & Frank, like me), but I could maybe see him becoming a robot. It actually makes more sense that way, but what do I know?

 Nah, I'm just pulling your chain; Frank (probably) has nothing to do with Robot & Frank, but if I had seen the latter film I'd give it the old college try to make tenuous connections. Frank minus Robot is about Jon Burroughs (Domhall Gleeson), who is just a normal guy that wants to be a musician. The only problem is that he's terrible at it. He writes lots of songs, but they're all strictly observational - the beginning of the film follows Jon home as he tries to come up with ideas, and mostly he sings things he's sees, like "lady with the red coat / what you doing with that bag / lady in the blue coat / do you know the lady in the red coat?". He lacks inspiration, and feels like his normal, suburban life in Ireland is to blame.

 By chance, he's sitting on a park bench when the keyboard player for Soronprfbs decides he's had enough and that he wants to drown in the frigid waters. This puts the band in a bit of a predicament, as they have a gig that night. As he's standing next to their manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), Jon casually mentions he plays the keyboard, and he's in. What he's in, as Jon (and we) will learn, is more than he could imagine. By this point in the film, we've already heard Soronprfbs on the radio, where an interview devolves into screaming profanity as members of the band attack each other, and that turns out to be pretty much the dynamic that Jon steps into.

 To call Soronprfbs "avant garde" would be a disservice to the term, but that's clearly what director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan are evoking by dropping the otherwise vanilla Jon into the mix. The drummer, Nana (Carla Azar) and guitarist, Baraque (François Civil) only speak French, and generally only speak to each other, unless Baraque is cursing at Carla (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the other synthesizer / Theremin player. Clara is brusque with pretty much everybody, but she takes a particular dislike to Jon, when she senses that he doesn't "fit" with the band's direction. She's also very protective of Frank (Fassbender), the band's singer / songwriter, who suffers from a severe mental condition that drives him to wear a paper mâché mask (based on Mark Sievey's character Frank Sidebottom) at all times, even in the shower. No one in the band has ever seen him without the head, and nobody will discuss it with Jon other than Don.

 After a disastrous gig that begins with the band noodling and Frank singing non-sequiturs and ends with Clara and Baraque screaming at each other and storming off stage, Jon assumes his adventure has come to a close and he returns to his desk job. But Frank calls, offering him another gig, and Jon hops back in the van. They end up somewhere in the Irish countryside, in a cabin in the woods, where unbeknownst to our protagonist, Don has rented out the place to record Soronprfbs's album. Since only Frank knows what it should sound like, that could take a while.

 Now, at this point in a movie about an everyman outsider who joins an abstract, stand-offish group / band / etc., we typically have a good idea of what's going to happen: the "weird" band and the "normal" hero are going to meet somewhere in the middle, both will find their groove and everything will turn out great at the big gig. Everybody learns something about themselves, the mean person turns out to really respect the protagonist or they find love, blah blah blah. Without spoiling anything, Frank doesn't go that way. It turns out that Jon, who begins communicating about the band in a clandestine manner via Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube, is a terrible fit for the band. His musical ideas are terrible, but he convinces Frank that the people following the band online love Soronprfbs (don't try to pronounce it - none of the members do). His sway over Frank only further alienates him with Clara, and when Jon takes the initiative and books the band at South by Southwest, his true intentions come out. And that doesn't work out so well, either.

 Were I you, I wouldn't go into Frank expecting a comedy, because while it is often funny (or at the very least, amusing), there's a dark undercurrent to the film. The original keyboardist isn't the only person involved in the band that gives up on living, and the contentious atmosphere never softens. While it's frequently an interesting movie to watch, Frank keeps you at a distance until the very end. The last scene brings about some sense of setting things right, but on its own terms, and in the meantime it's hard to find a character to sympathize with. Jon transitions from affable to duplicitous not long after they arrive at the cabin, and the other chief option, Frank, is a mystery until late into the film.

 This is not to say that Gleeson, Fassbender, and Gyllenhaal aren't all very good in their roles, but that the characters seem off-putting by design, and you have to really work to want any of them to succeed. I'm not sure how the average moviegoer is going to respond to (SPOILER-ISH) Clara being right all along and Jon being totally wrong about Frank's ability to process actual fans. The film is, at times, dead-set in going the opposite direction of what you expect, and tonally I found it very similar to Calvary. Ostensibly Frank and Calvary are comedies, but both spend more time examining human nature and its frailties and less on making sure the audience feels comfortable with what they're seeing. Which is not to say that this is a bad thing, because I very much enjoyed Calvary and I like a lot of Frank, particularly the pitch perfect way it closes.

 Frank should also probably get some credit for accurately portraying the way that social media is used, although that might date the film as the internet pushes forward. Like Jon Favreau's Chef - an entertaining, albeit totally predictable movie I might review down the line - Abrahamson, Ronson, and Straughan use Jon's knowledge of Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube to help turn Soroprfbs into a viral sensation in a way that reflects how it usually happens, which is pretty much what Chef does with Twitter and Vine. I appreciated the effort, particularly in a cinematic landscape where computers are often a lazy way to get exposition out.

 The songs, for the record (no pun intended, but what can you do?) range from pretty entertaining to "what?" The last song, in particular, is the catchiest, despite the fact that I misunderstood Fassbender's singing and thought the chorus was "I love you, wall" instead of "I love you all," which does change the closing scene a little bit. Without getting into why she's singing them, it's also quite amusing to hear Clara's renditions of "On Top of Old Smokey" and "I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper." Jon's songs start out fitfully silly and devolve into wordless garbage by the end of the film, but I'm almost positive that was by design, so I won't criticize that too much.

 Finally, I can't leave out the truly impressive feat by Michael Fassbender, who manages to convey a great sense of empathy and enthusiasm in Frank without the benefit of facial expressions. He's behind the mask, which you can see in the poster above, and aside from a brief period when he begins describing his facial expressions to ease Jon's discomfort, Fassbender relies entirely on his body language and voice (in a strange, slightly ambiguous "American" accent) to bring the character across. If you weren't somehow already impressed by his acting before, Frank will push you over. That is, if you don't mind an almost relentlessly downbeat "comedy". It's tempting to call Frank a "black comedy," but I'm not certain that quite captures the film. Like its titular character, Frank is an odd bird. It's not for everybody, to be sure, but if you liked Little Miss Sunshine and thought the ending was too "upbeat," this might be your kind of movie. I have the feeling I'll revisit Frank at some point, if for no other reason than to figure out how a robot and jewel thievery get shoehorned into this universe...

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