Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Lenny Abramson
Screenplay: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan, based on Jon Ronson’s original newspaper article
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/9/14
Opens: August 22, 2014
Here in New York, the city with the world’s most diverse population, you’re lucky if one day passes without your spotting at least one crazy out of our seven million people. But I’ve never seen a guy wearing a large plaster mask covering his entire face, hair painted on top, fitted so he is unable to take solid nourishment. Man, that’s nuts, but the folks in an Irish band take such a character in stride. In fact, “Frank” is inspired by the true story of one such person, Chris Sievey, who took on the name of Frank Sidebottom, but is inspired as well by other musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the film, was part of the band, the action shot in County Wicklow in Dublin and in New Mexico taking the place of Austin, Texas, the home of the SXSW festival. This by way of preventing you in the audience from saying that the plot is too far-out to be real, though anything can happen in musical comedy.
To label “Frank” musical comedy, though, may be a stretch, since you don’t see people chatting, then bursting in songs that advance the plot. Instead, these misfits get together, converse often aimlessly though sometimes working to improve their style. We get the impression soon enough that these people would never be accepted no matter how many “hits” they receive in the social media, nor do they particularly care that the music is performed principally for their own entertainment.
Did we say that the band members are all emotionally disturbed? Frank (Michael Fassbender) for example, never takes off the big plaster mask even though it prevent him from eating solid food. He sleeps in it, sings and plays music in it, and is generally tolerated, even respected by his colleagues. The leader of the group, Don (Scott McNairy) is even more disturbed, though he hides his face in a broad hat, a beard and dark shades. He has already attempted suicide by a plunge into the ocean and will try to complete the act through other means before the story is over. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a first-class cynic whose emotional disturbance is more difficult to detect, perhaps because while her action is bizarre from the point of view of someone in Ireland, it would be considered normal enough in New York. As the group’s narrator, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) comes across as a shy person living with his parents, a young man with mediocre talents like the rest of the band but who believes he can be celebrated as both a writer and a keyboarder. He gets the job with the group after an interview: “You play C, F and G?” That’s it. His affirmative answer puts him in their van where they take him far from his roots to a remote location in Ireland to practice doing what Frank calls journeying “to the far corners of artistic creation.”
The film is surprisingly accessible even if you think by reading this synopsis that it would be far out. Jon, who is a stand-in for co-writer Jon Ronson who witnessed the band’s “music” and who performed on keyboard himself, evokes distinct personalities from the members of the group, including one French duo with virtually no speaking roles, Nana (Carla Azar) and bass player Baraque (François Civil). The movie does not outlive its welcome, encouraging members of the audience to laugh at the players rather than with them, though we’ve got to sympathize with Jon’s desire near the conclusion to “sell out” by performing music that would more likely be appreciated by the audience at SXSW, where the group is to perform its debut concert.
In the end, we get an explanation from Frank’s parents about the title character’s bizarre behavior, the father in Kansas taking some blame in setting his boy up for a life of disappointment and disaster. This is an unusual performance from Michael Fassbender, heretofore known principally as a man addicted to sex in Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” As Jon, Domhnall Gleeson evokes the conflicted moods of the group’s newest member, one who has hopes, however farfetched, of giving the band mainstream kudos.
Unrated. 98 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B