In a sentence, Frank is the story of a struggling song writer—in the sense that he’s never written a song—who ends up living in a cabin with a band led by a man who never takes off his papier-mâché head.
In many hands, that would be a recipe for twee adventures, but director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan are interested in anything but that. Instead, Ronson’s real life experience playing in a band whose frontman wears a papier-mâché head—Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band–as a jumping off point to talk about outsider art and the compulsion to create.
While the characters in Frank do talk about why they like Frank, the movie goes the extra mile to actually make Frank magnetic, quickly answering any question of why someone would drop out of society and follow these people into the woods. Frank is very clearly onto something.
It helps that Michael Fassbender, who plays Frank, is a better actor than anyone has a right to be. He completely disappears under the fake head, both literally and figuratively. In some bizarre twist on the “that guy could read the phone book and make it interesting” cliché, Fassbender proves that he doesn’t even need facial expressions to be interesting. Thankfully, everyone is bringing their A-game here, so no one gets left behind. Maggie Gyllenhaal in particular is called on to be combative to the audience surrogate for most of the run time, but somehow manages to wring sympathy from stabbing him with a knife.
Domhnall Gleeson, as the audience surrogate Jon, would be worth noting if he simply managed to not get bowled over by Fassbender, but instead he more than holds his own, bringing a real depth to Jon’s hunger for something more than mediocrity, even if his good intentions end up in hell.
There is a tone shift towards the end that I don’t want to give away here, other than to say my favorite thing about the movie is that it spends most of the run time with Jon—and the audience—thinking that he’s the hero of the story, only to take a turn in the final act that casts the first hour of the movie in a stark new light,making you question what you were laughing at when they were in the cabin.
And there’s plenty to laugh at. Hell, even in the dramatic turns, Frank is very funny. Some of the best jokes come from the banality of Jon’s social media shares–tweets overlaid on the screen complete with follower counts–which are funny by virtue of being painfully familiar. It’s a Vonnegut-like sense of how absurd the mundane really is, with a similar undercurrent of darkness running through it.
That darkness does bubble to the surface at times, though the movie never rubs your face in it or wears it like a badge of honor. These things happen and we deal with them, sometimes in ways we didn’t expect. But fittingly, victory in the movie doesn’t come in the form of fame or fortune, but personal expression. This isn’t a feel good puff piece. It’s a Rocky ending instead of a Rocky IV—all that matters is finding a way to get into the ring. It’s heartbreaking, but inspirational in that I dare you to not try to make something as soon as the movie ends. I guess that’s my review right there: Frank makes the act of creation seem like the greatest thing in the world.