×

Film Review: ‘Frank’

A faceless Michael Fassbender stars in this weird and wonderful musical comedy from director Lenny Abrahamson.

With:

Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Michael Fassbender, Francois Civil, Carla Azar, Tess Harper, Bruce McIntosh, Haley Derryberry, Lauren Poole.

Of all the acting challenges Michael Fassbender has faced, none quite compares to performing without the use of his face. That’s precisely what’s required in “Frank,” a weird and wonderful musical comedy about an oddball outsider band whose mentally ill frontman insists on wearing an expressionless plaster mask at all times — both onstage and off, in the shower and even to bed. It’s the sort of affectation that gets films labeled as “quirky,” although this one happens to be inspired by a true story. Luckily, helmer Lenny Abrahamson (“Garage,” “Adam & Paul”) puts the pic’s eccentricity to good use, luring in skeptics with jokey surrealism and delivering them to a profoundly moving place.

Frank’s story couldn’t have existed if not for Chris Sievey, an English punk-rocker-cum-comedian whom the public knew as Frank Sidebottom, encased in an oblong papier-mache head with unblinking Pac-Man eyes and painted-on hair. Jon Ronson witnessed Sievey’s bizarre performance-art phenomenon firsthand, joining Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band as a substitute keyboard player in college, then reteaming with “The Men Who Stare at Goats” co-writer Peter Straughan to fictionalize Sievey’s story for the screen.

With the film premiering as far away as Sundance, where almost no one has the slightest recollection of Frank’s earlier incarnation, the delightedly incredulous crowd was free to discover the character with open minds, in much the way most Americans will experience this affable oddity. Incidentally, open minds are just what “Frank” requires, taking audiences on a journey to the “far corners” of artistic creation. That’s where Frank pushes his band — the unpronounceable “Soronprfbs” — to seek inspiration, leaving the line between genius and insanity inextricably confused.

Conceived on approximately the same wavelength as Ylvis’ “The Fox,” “Frank” doubles as both satire of and homage to audience-of-none outsider art, embracing the absurdity of the band’s experimental process for its full comic effect. In addition to Frank, the Soronprfbs consist of burnt-out band manager Don (Scoot McNairy), passive-aggressive percussionist Nana (Carla Azar), aloof French-speaking bass player Baraque (Francois Civil) and mystery woman Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an ice-cold theremin player deeply suspicious of everyone else’s motives.

The relatively relatable audience surrogate amid such weirdness is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an unfulfilled office drone who dabbles in songwriting, attempting to spin his uninspiring surroundings into banal pop tunes. The Soronprfbs exist on the opposite end of the commercial spectrum, writing abstract pieces conceived with seemingly little care as to who might be in the audience.

After the band’s keyboardist tries to commit suicide the night of a gig, Jon offers his services. “You play C, F and G?” asks Don. That’s the extent of Jon’s job interview, after which he’s uneasily welcomed into their ranks. Packing just a spare pair of pants for what he thinks is a weekend gig, Jon eagerly jumps in the band’s van, not realizing until they arrive at a remote cabin that he’s been enlisted for an “as long as it takes” project to record an album unlike anything the world has ever heard.

In Gleeson’s gifted comedic hands, Jon embodies a shy, self-effacing British stereotype altogether unsuited for rock-star status, though that doesn’t stop the socially awkward, redheaded fool from dreaming of big-time success. That ambition, even more than his near-total lack of talent, makes Jon a bad fit for the Soronprfbs, a hipster collective whose members look and behave like escapees from a Wes Anderson movie — the key difference being that Abrahamson reveals these misfits to be nuanced human beings by film’s end.

So, while “Frank” appears to be parodying the band’s tortured process of trying to reinvent music from the ground up, the savvy critique actually has more to say about those like Jon who seek mainstream success while contributing nothing meaningful to the culture at large. In scene after scene, the tension involves striking a balance between possibly misguided artistic purity and Jon’s definitely misguided desire to sell out — which explains the running joke of superimposing Jon’s navel-gazing tweets over the action throughout. While Frank and Clara focus on breaking musical boundaries, Jon is doing the social-media thing, trying to build an online audience for a band that’s fundamentally uninterested in how many “followers” it attracts.

But “Frank’s” insights into human nature extend beyond the sphere of music, finding yet another fresh angle on the “Being There” fable, in which a mentally unsound man is mistaken by his peers as a prophetic figure. As Frank’s chief acolyte and enabler, Clara recognizes the fragility of his cult status, pushing back against Jon’s ambitions to take the band to the SXSW music fest in the States.

The movie loses its way a bit on the road, unable to match the quality of the screenwriting in its musical performances, recorded live by the cast themselves. Still, amid so much arch weirdness, “Frank” proves remarkably accessible. Behind its inscrutable exterior beams a welcoming smile.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Frank'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production:

(Ireland) A Film4, BFI, Protagonist Pictures, Irish Film Board presentation of an Element Pictures, Runaway Fridge Films production in association with Sandia Media. Produced by Ed Guiney, David Barron, Stevie Lee. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Katherine Butler, Andrew Lowe, Nigel Williams, Peter Touche.

Crew:

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Screenplay, Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan, based on the original newspaper article by Ronson. Camera (color), James Mather; editor, Nathan Nugent; music, Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Richard Bullock; art director, Tamara Conboy; set decorator, Jenny Oman; costume designer, Suzie Harman; sound (Dolby Digital), Niall O'Sullivan;  sound designer, Steve Fanagan; supervising sound editor, Niall Brady; re-recording mixers, Ken Galvin, Steve Fanagan; visual effects supervisor, Ed Bruce; visual effects, Screen Scene VFX; stunt coordinator, Donal O'Farrell; line producer, Noelette Buckley, Brent Morris; assistant director, Sean Griffin; casting, Fiona Weir.

With:

Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Michael Fassbender, Francois Civil, Carla Azar, Tess Harper, Bruce McIntosh, Haley Derryberry, Lauren Poole.

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content