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.