Do you like quirky indie comedies/dramas? Cool. You’ll probably like Frank. No? You might, but it’s a bit more of a gamble.
Wow. That’s the easiest review I’ve ever written.
Okay, there is a lot more to Frank than that. While the phrase “quirky indie comedy” (or worse yet, “quirky indie dramedy”) has become maligned in recent years—and while Frank does fit into that subsubgenre—it manages to escape many of the pointless, shallow trappings that have come to be associated with the types of movies that AV Club’s Noel Murray recently picked apart. In fact, Frank often threatens to be the very thing that lesser quirky indie comedies fear: earnest. When it captures that quality, it shows itself as a thoughtful, intelligent movie about interesting people. It shows itself as a human story.
I want to note, before I go any further, that Frank is a really, really wonderful movie, and I enjoyed it a lot. However, it’s also a movie that is so close to being perfect that its imperfections are all the more frustrating. Frank is funny, unique, well-shot, well-structured, and engaging. But it also gets in the way of its own script, inhibiting a screenplay that is complex and insightful.
While much of the film does get in the way of the earnestness and complexity, those qualities are brought out by the ever-welcome talents of Michael Fassbender as the eponymous leader of an avante-garde rock group. His quirky shtick is that he wears a large fake head at all times, on- or off-stage. Fassbender adds layers to his performance despite the fact that his face is pretty much never visible, and it reflects something that Second Breakfast’s Chris Melville pointed out: Fassbender treats each role as if it will define his career. He never phones it in, never treats a character as anything less than a complete, nuanced human being. Without that level of professionalism, Frank would have failed, because many other actors would have grabbed the low-hanging fruit of an ironic, distanced performance, which would have pushed Frank out of the reach of earnestness and into the realm of negative adjectives that define so many indie flicks: ironic, detached, heartless,and pretentious.
But as much as Fassbender brings heart and depth to Frank, I was distraught to see how much Domhnall Gleeson does not. Gleeson plays Jon, the film’s protagonist. He starts out as a mediocre musician who is sick of his office job and whose arc takes center stage of the film. While Gleeson is plenty talented, I got the impression that he feels the need to distance himself from Jon, a character who turns out to be rather unsavory. Often, one can see that Gleeson is not willing to truly become the clueless wannabe, as if he were afraid that the audience would confuse the actor with the character. When Gleeson narrates the Tweets or Tumblr posts that Jon makes in ideological opposition to the free-wheeling, art-first approach of Frank’s band, irony drips from his voice. Even in simple conversations, you can hear the distinction between what Jon says (and truly believes), and what Domhnall thinks about what Jon says. While Jon is a genuine person, Gleeson’s sardonic performance limits our ability to understand the character—and to appreciate the film—substantially. This only becomes more clear when he is put next to Fassbender, who previously managed to make a homicidal android the most likable character in an ensemble film.
I harp on Gleeson only because I think that he takes a script that has distantly ironic and complexly earnest elements, and brings out the negative, ironic ones rather than the earnest, human ones. Those negative qualities have become the norm of indie cinema; while irony and distance is not inherently bad, it’s definitely not the driving strength of Frank‘s narrative, and those aspects exist in tension with the layers that Fassbender brings to the characters’ relationships. The result is a movie that constantly wants to be an intriguing character study, but also dips into the toxic pool of cooler-than-you caricature. Jon is a selfish prick who has no musical talent, and if the actor portraying him won’t look past that summary, then neither will the viewer.
Worst of all, because Jon is the protagonist—again, his character arc is the narrative focus —the film’s emotional trajectory does not have the resonance that it should. I initially thought this a fault in the writing, but my friend Sam pointed out to me the complex arc present in the script. The issue is that it falls flat due to the way Jon is portrayed. Let me outline the journey (SPOILERS ABOUND): Frank opens with Jon trying and failing to make songs out of what he sees. We quickly learn that his musical talent is lacking, and he’s unsatisfied with his office job—and, well, his life. When he witnesses Frank’s genius, Jon assumes it relates to the trauma and potential mental illness of the man underneath the mask. Jon, sadly, is mostly interested in fame and Facebook likes, and he destroys the chemistry and artistry of the band. He learns that trauma and mental illness don’t breed genius and creativity; after all, the trauma he experienced during the band’s breakup did not improve his skills, and Frank’s parents bluntly state that their son’s mental illness only hindered his abilities (shout-out to screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan for not romanticizing mental illnes). Musical creativity and brilliance are just something Frank has and Jon doesn’t. In the final scene, Jon watches Frank return to the band and perform with them, returned to their former glory, and walks off into the night, aware that this life is not for him. He has grown as a person and learned about who he is, learned who he can be. He is back where he started on a material level, but he’s changed for the better on a personal level.
However, because Jon doesn’t feel like a complete human being, his arc doesn’t feel genuine. Instead, we are far more interested in Frank’s growth, and while in the end he can perform without the mask, his arc ends in returning largely to where he began, before Jon came into the picture: leading a band that cared about music. Because Jon’s arc is masked by his lack of humanity, the sudden shift to a resolution for Frank and a lack of emotional resolution for Jon (Did he change? How can we know?) leaves the viewer in a state of dissatisfied irresolution. While the end scene is incredibly well done, it’s also conflicting; the potential that is present in the script for a satisfying narrative resolution and character resolution is not present, because it lacks conviction and sincerity. (END SPOILERS)
I don’t mean to pin that all on Gleeson. I do not doubt that his performance was influenced by the director, Lenny Abrahamson. To return to an insightful comment that my friend Sam made, there’s something intriguing about the fact that the person who should be the least “normal,” Frank, is by far the most relatable; in contrast, the character who should be the most “normal,” Jon, is by far the least relatable. Because Gleeson plays him ironically—despite the character being entirely genuine—that effect is compounded. But I think this comes across as one of those great ideas a first year film student might have (“It’s so meta!”) that ultimately hurts the movie by decreasing the human element of what is, at heart, a human story. Sure, it might seem clever to make Jon seem even less human because he is played ironically, but just because you purposefully do something bad doesn’t mean it isn’t bad. And portraying your character satirically in a movie that depends on the audience viewing the characters as human is not clever. It’s bad.
I have spent most of this review critiquing Frank, but it really is an incredible story and a delightful movie. The writers and director aim for something unique, and its only weakness is that it doesn’t commit. It’s a movie that I think I will return to several times, becoming more enamored with its strengths, but remaining frustrated with its flaws. And it’s possible that most people will watch Frank and not take any issue with Gleeson’s performance or the occasional bouts of irony, but when you bring in a presence like Michael Fassbender, you need to ensure that the rest of your film can match his skill and investment.
Anyway, now that I’ve spent over a thousand words whinging about this movie, let me conclude my review: Frank is a wonderful, engaging, and insightful film about interesting people, and while it is flawed, those flaws only serve to reveal how many layers exist within its thoughtful screenplay and direction. If you can tolerate a bit of quirk, then you will find a lot to enjoy about Frank, whether you are an analysis-minded film-goer, or just someone who wants to see a good story with interesting people. Check it out on Netflix Instant or whatever medium you prefer, and enjoy the show.