If nothing else, Frank is an eccentric, befuddling document. That’s more than I can say for most films these days, even if I can’t entirely recommend this one. Lenny Abrahamson directs the screenplay written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. At the film’s center we have Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), a shy Irish musician who writes boring tweets that flash across the screen: “Time to eat, #nomnomnom.” He’s one of those blank canvas characters that the movie will project colorful events onto, and so it does when Jon happens upon the suicide attempt of a wayward keyboardist in the ocean. The band will need a replacement, and before long, Jon finds himself a full-fledged member of the experimental pop rock band Soronprfbs, who immediately steal away to a cottage in the Irish countryside to record an album together.
The weirdest thing about the band, I guess, is its frontman Frank, who wears a gigantic papier-mâché head every moment of his life. Jon finds the mask perplexing and who can blame him? He asks one of the other band members the questions the audience is undoubtedly thinking, like: How does he eat? Does he sleep in the mask? Why would anyone do that? And so on. “Just go with it,” the band member says. “Submit to our ridiculous conceit,” the film rather non-subtly seems to wink at the camera and say.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Clara, the band’s theremin player and possibly Frank’s love interest. Clara spends the movie hating success while inexplicably terrorizing the new keyboardist, even though he seems like a good musician and he’s putting up the money for their interminable recording session.
Somewhere in the murk of quirky happenings, the band manages to calm down and perform an actual song together, and it’s an astounding, inspiring bit of music. Frank gives a vocal performance through his big-head mask reminiscent of Jim Morrison, backed by disjointed, half-melodies. The song plainly establishes the band as both likable and uncompromising, so much so it makes the side plot of Frank and Jon’s attempt to write poppy little melodies seem sort of dumb and irrelevant.
Throughout the 11 months of continuously perfecting the band’s sound, a central conflict arises over just how accessible Soronprfbs music should be. After many years of integrity-fueled obscurity, Frank seems ready to break out a mainstream hit with a kind of manic enthusiasm reminiscent of Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston and other tortured musicians of our time. Meanwhile, Jon has been recording the band’s antics for YouTube, which infuriates the members who wanted to keep writing music nobody would ever want to listen to in a cabin in Ireland forever.
Nevertheless, the online exposure leads to a gig playing on one of the small stages at the Austin music festival South by Southwest. Pressures from the gig lead to that inevitable point in the movie when the band breaks off into different factions, find that they can’t make it on their own and then come back together again, probably stronger than before. (That’s only a spoiler if this is the first movie you’ve ever watched about a band.)
About this eccentric frontman: He’s played by a famous and revered actor of our time, and I’ve purposefully chosen not to name him. If you’ve read anything about the movie or walked by the poster or seen any promotional material, then you know who plays Frank. But I wish I hadn’t and feel no good can come from knowing, since so much of the movie invites you to wonder what he looks like under there. Frank is played by an empirically handsome man with a Hollywood-groomed body, so to keep the illusion going, you have to imagine a tortured genius who also lifts weights and gets up early to run by the river.
The mask is supposed to symbolize mental illness, or maybe it’s simply an exploration of what happens when jokes are taken too far. For me, it’s just too dumb a metaphor to get over. It’s a Jack in the Box commercial that goes about 94 minutes too long. Critics have been hailing the lead’s acting performance as a great achievement, but that’s insane, right? All of his lines come out muffled behind the mask and we can’t see his face!
Frank is a near miss for me. I appreciate its dogged commitment to strangeness, and there are some genuinely funny moments, like how Clara’s new band is called Oeccscclhjhn. If you think that joke is funny, there just might be something in this weird little movie for you after all.
Frank screens at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 22–Sun., Aug. 24, and Fri., Aug. 29–Sun., Aug. 31, at 7:15 and 9:15 PM nightly.