Frank is a prime example of marketing's double-edged impact on modern filmmaking. It also raises a deeper issue of how much movies are allowed to stand on their own--as opposed to being amalgamations of the creators' vision, the careers of the performers and artisans involved, and whatever baggage each audience member brings into a screening. As a movie, however, Lenny Abrahamson's Twitter-era take on Almost Famous flounders, narratively, and winds up yet another flimsy showcase for a stellar lead performance.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as Jon, a wannabe musician who doesn't so much struggle as wait for greatness to arrive at his doorstep. He makes up lyrics and melodies while walking home to his parents' house from his dead-eyed day job. Always fussing and tweaking, he never commits to anything that requires more creativity than 140-character witticisms. One day, he happens upon two cops pulling a raving, suicidal man from the ocean. This lunatic turns out to be the keyboardist for a band whose music is as experimental as its name is unpronounceable ("Soronprfbs"). Jon stumbles into a gig with a group that includes a spacey Scoot McNairy, an aggressively anti-social Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Michael Fassbender in a giant papier-mâché head.
The band spends nearly a year in a remote cabin, warming up to (maybe, eventually, not really) recording an album. Like his fellow performers, Jon leaves his life behind to follow the enigmatic, demanding, and oddly charismatic Frank--even going so far as to blow his grandfather's inheritance on financially supporting the group. He grows ever more petulant and opinionated, and by the time he's tricked Soronprfbs into becoming social media darlings, I was too far gone to even consider Jon a sympathetic character. Almost Famous, which covered similar ground, at least featured a teenage boy as its window into the weird, wide world of music-making; the fact that Jon appears to be in his early twenties, and has at once a brazen ego and discomforting lack of identity, makes it difficult to spend fifteen minutes with him--let alone an hour-thirty.
I don't blame Gleeson, who makes what he can out of the role. No, problems rest with co-writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. These results are especially surprising from Ronson, a journalist who specializes in getting fly-on-the-wall access to fringe circles and making obscure realms and conspiracies accessible to novice readers. In books like Them and films like The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Ronson character is typically an informed adult who finds himself in over his head. The "Jon" in Frank is a turnip fresh off the truck, who foolishly believes he invented both turnips and trucks.
Of greater concern is Ronson and Straughan's stance (at least in this story) that artists are either milquetoast aspirants or socially awkward maniacs. There's no middle ground here, no character for the audience to really identify with. Speaking from experience, there's a wide swath of creative people who produce stellar art on a daily basis and understand how to interface with the world. The screenwriters fall for the mystique that art is a bi-product of insanity, an intangible thing that cannot be understood. Frank offers a celebrity-chef approach to creativity that, as an artist, I neither recognize nor endorse.
The real reason to see Frank is Frank, and for all the meta conundrums those big, blank eyes represent. Let's get this out of the way: Fassbender is terrific here. Hiding that icy, descendant-of-Caesar stare inside a mask, he morphs his body into a slumped-shoulder vehicle for artistic genius. Unlike Jon, who is too cocky to know he's vulnerable, Frank is a wounded god, trapped in a mentally constrained shell. As the film opens up about his past, so, too, does Frank break free of the creative and social blocks that locked him insde a giant cartoon to begin with.
This brings us to some big questions.
Would Frank have been a different experience if Fassbender was never credited? The answer is, undoubtedly, "Yes". The actor's name is even more important to this film than its quirky premise, and I can't blame the studio for doing everything they could to get eyeballs on this thing. But I was hyper-aware of the person beneath the mask, from the get-go. When Frank slipped from his mumbling Kansan accent into an Irish brogue, I was reminded of Fassbender's shaky climactic speech in X-Men: First Class--not exactly the kind of immersive experience Abrahamson envisioned, I'm sure. I was also bowled over by the extent to which he played against his own type.
But what of those people who encounter Frank, now or twenty years from now, who know nothing of the Fassbender zeitgeist--those who just see an actor (Spoiler: he shows his true face later in the picture) doing a really good job? Does my opinion of the performer's stellar resume--and the fact that he branches out here--shade my overall affection for his role? Or is he really that good in Frank?
One could ask these questions about any movie, I suppose. That kind of commentary on commentary on commentary is either the death of art or the beginning of it; I'm not sure which, yet. I do know that I enjoyed Frank less than I'd hoped to, but discovered a specific vulnerability to Fassbender that I hadn't expected to even exist. I recommend this film as a fascination, a wayward entertainment that invites deep thinking about lots of things that have little to do with the quality of the movie itself. Then again, maybe I just need to get out of my own head.