Frank

Adorably askew and zestily zany, Frank is an odd, offbeat, oddball surprise; a functioning, charmingly honest fable of artistic angst and aspiration; and a funny, whimsical tale with an underlying layer of deep melancholy about the fragility of art and the human psyche.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, True Grit, Anna Karenina), a young man with a strong interest in music, as he joins a band called Soronprfbs led by the titular Frank (Michael Fassbender). (As Clara, Frank’s aggressive sidekick, Maggie Gyllenhaal digs into her spunkiest, spiciest role since Secretary.) Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Jon Ronson understand the fragility of their misfit characters. Bouncing off the yin-and-yang dynamic of its two primaries, Frank is really the story of a pop star who lets his art go to his head.

In a sweeping and successful departure from the land of HungerFish Tank, and Shame, Fassbender gives the best performance ever given by an actor in a papier-mâché head mask. Despite an expressionless appearance and exaggerated facial cues which must be announced (“welcoming smile”), Fassbender subtly conveys the sadder elements of a man whose head begins to weigh heavily on his shoulders. In small movements – a wobble under a door frame, a twitch of a hand, a beer and straw held uselessly by his painted mouth – Fassbender gives us glimpses of what Frank’s isolating genius has cost him. The man in the mask is a modern Mozart.

No matter how goofy, Frank has serious things to say about artistic madness, mental illness, band dynamics, broken dreams, and selling out. A meditation on fame’s terrors and the metaphoric usefulness of masks, it investigates the frontier between indie quirk and mental illness, the volatile combination of tortured soul and personality cult. There’s an uplifting perseverance to Frank, a spirit of unity among the damaged. It boldly raises the question of whether it’s better for an artist to keep his work at home or tweak it so as to share it with the world.

It’s easy to criticize Frank as an entertaining curio, only vaguely penetrative in its flashes of inspiration. Packaged for relatively ease of consumption, it’s too concerned with idiosyncrasy and not enough with consistency, and it does ping-pong between amusing and tiresome. Yet it transcends its quirky trappings with a heartfelt and thought-provoking story.

Exceedingly eccentric and endearingly unusual, Frank is an off-balance dramedy with instrumental backing, a study in psychopathy, an adventure with a wannabe musician. A crazy concoction of road-tripper Little Miss Sunshine and punk-spirited We Are the Best!, it’s an accumulation of memorable moments, like an album made up of B sides and lost demo tracks that you stumble across and can’t stop replaying. It’s clever, playful, and smile-plastering in its earnestness.

It’s great to see greed and conceit ritually sacrificed at the butt end of genius. Frank is a welcome whiff of frankness in a largely Frank-less world, a darkly comedic manifesto against the status quo, a true original in a sea of sameness. That alone gets a thumbs up from this critic.

3/4

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