Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: "Frank"

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Runtime: 95 minutes

Michael Fassbender's mask-wearing singer/composer may be the face (and title) of Lenny Abrahamson's Frank, but the film's story belongs to someone else. That someone is Jon Burroughs, played by fellow Irishman Domhnall Gleeson (son of Calvary star Brendan Gleeson). Though Gleeson is our entryway into Frank's world of off-kilter, underground musician, he emerges as the most fully-formed character. He is more than an audience surrogate, which is a huge plus considering the slightly cartoonish characterizations of everyone else who appears on screen in this mostly winning dark comedy. 

When we first meet Jon, he's doing his best to compose a song based on what he sees around him, yet nothing is coming together. There is no magical moment of inspiration that ever takes place throughout the rest of Abrahamson's film, which further grounds the story's stakes in the real world, despite the broad strokes used in defining many of the characters. This is no Behind the Music/rags to riches story. Like last year's excellent Inside Llewyn Davis, it's a story of simply trying to get by, in hopes that something great will be not too far off. 

So even though Jon is taken with Frank's very alternative take on indie rock, he understands that they have a lot of work to do to finish a first album. Secluded away in the Irish countryside, the young man starts to document the band's progress through every tedious step (it takes almost a year before proper recording even commences). Along the way, he has to contend with the band's financial struggles, along with resistance from a duo of French band mates and the stand-offish Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

And then there's Frank himself, who's his own riddle wrapped up in a mystery (etc...). No one has seen Frank without the bulbous fake head at all, and no one has any idea what the reason for wearing the piece might be. Still, even with his expressive face concealed, Fassbender lends a surprisingly playful air to this bizarro band leader. He is an extreme example of the tortured artist that no one truly understands, yet Fassbender keeps him in check, never making him too broad or "out there" to the point where he loses his humanity. Despite the odd looking head-gear, Frank, along with Jon, comes off as a believable presence. 

Unfortunately, this isn't true at all for the rest of the band's members. Gyllenhaal has a great deal of fun with her prickly role, but the script struggles to push past her surface behaviors. More often than not, she's used to punctuate a moment with dour sarcasm, leaving her little to do for herself. The mumbly French duo are given even less to work with. 

Thankfully, Gleeson holds the film together quite nicely, even as Frank starts to drag its feet in the final act. The writing often seems too caught up in the eccentricities of given moments, and in doing so, forget to really sharpen the arcs of its major players. Gleeson and Fassbender, however, at least have material with some semblance of substance to work with, even as they're forced to make due with a wobbly foundation.

So even though the majority of Frank works, it's still a film that lacks strong focus. The final scene is both charming and bleak, an unusual combination that somehow works. Yet afterwards, the film's intentions seem a bit muddled. There are a number of big, rich angles touched on, yet it's hard to say which one the film really put as its number one priority. Despite some nice performances and a nicely honed, dark sense of humor, Frank often feels more like a novel bit of eccentricity, rather than a fully-formed work. Like Frank's band, Abrahamson's film is clearly onto something, but it's desperately in need of a great deal of fine-tuning. 

Grade: B-

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