I'D LIKE TO THINK Mercury Senior Editor Erik Henriksen asked me to review Frank because he knows I'm a fan of author and journalist Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, Them: Adventures with Extremists), as well as a shameless Anglophile with a decent knowledge of Britpop history—thus making me uniquely qualified to contextually analyze this film. But who am I kidding? It's because my goddamn name is Frank. Still, Erik's a friend. So rather than take umbrage, I've decided to lean in.
So buckle the Frank up! 'Cause I'm about to Frank the Frank out of Frank.
Frank is an odd little comedy about what it's like to know a genius, in which Michael Fassbender hides his beautiful, beautiful face under a giant cartoon papier-mâché head while crooning stream-of-consciousness gibberish in the style of Jim Morrison. Also, Maggie Gyllenhaal is in it.
Still with me? All right, let's Frank it up.
The film is (very) loosely based on Ronson's own experiences playing keyboard for Frank Sidebottom, the papier-mâché-headed alter ego of punk comedian Chris Sievey. But while Sidebottom was an exercise in Andy Kaufman-style absurdist comedy, the film's version of Frank is sort of an amalgam of Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston—an inscrutable avant-garde musician, surrounded by true believers who nurture his genius while refusing to admit there may in fact be something seriously wrong. And Ronson (with director Lenny Abrahamson) uses this reimagined Frank to explore our relationship to people like Johnston, Brian Wilson, and Roky Erickson—musicians whose genius seems inextricable from their mental illnesses.
(Ready for the synopsis, Frankies? Frank yeah!)
Frank follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a thoroughly mediocre English kid who dreams of escaping his mediocre life in his mediocre town by becoming a songwriter. Unfortunately, his songs are—you guessed it—kinda shitty. One day, while tweeting his sadness at being so durned mediocre all the time, he manages to mediocre his way into a job playing keyboard for a struggling art-rock band led by an enigmatic genius (Fassbender) in a cartoon head that he never, ever takes off. Jon is awestruck, happy to be whisked off to a rented cabin to record Frank's magnum opus. Then things start to get Frankin' weird: While preparing to record the album, the band's dynamic feels first like a family and then like a cult, with big-head Frank at its center. Frank is more benevolent guru than dictator, but the atmosphere grows steadily more uncomfortable.
Except for Frank himself (and the band's manager, played wonderfully by Halt and Catch Fire's Scoot McNairy), the bandmates all loathe Jon, and never stop loathing him. In particular, Clara (Gyllenhaal), the band's icy Moog player, despises Jon for his appalling normalness and his attempts to make Frank famous—and, at every turn, lets him know that he doesn't belong among the real artists. You know that moment where the outcast is finally accepted? Frank never gives us that. Sure, Frank is supportive of Jon's presence, but it turns out that support is completely misplaced, and mean ol' meanie-pants Clara is ultimately (and refreshingly) proven right: She's the only one who realizes what Frank needs is protection, not exposure.
Despite some jarring tonal shifts and a somewhat cheesy third act, Frank is well made and compelling, with excellent performances—especially from Fassbender and Gyllenhaal—and a couple of not-half-bad original songs. Frankly, if you're going to Frank one film named Frank this year, then this is the one to Frank.