A semi-pseudo-documentary based on a real one, “Frank and Cindy” never quite acquires a convincing raison d’etre despite impressive work from Rene Russo and Oliver Platt as dramatized versions of the real-life dysfunctional parents that writer-director G.J. Echternkamp already portrayed in his same-named 2007 feature documentary. Both films have the “Grey Gardens”-like trainwreck fascination of outsized personalities conducting their own ruin with delusions of grandeur still fully intact, but the narrative spine that might have given this version an arc and a purpose fails to materialize. The result is likely to struggle for theatrical berth, though cast names should make it viable as a home-format item.
During a term break from film school, GJ (Johnny Simmons) reluctantly returns home, where mom Cindy (Russo) greets him with: “Are you ready for the shock of your life? … I quit drinking!” That is a surprise, but she’s hiding a considerably less pleasant one: GJ can’t go back to school, because she and her husband, Frank (Platt), have already spent the money designated for his higher education on a home recording studio. This will theoretically give GJ’s stepdad the means to reignite a musical career that’s been comatose since he was in New Wave pop band OXO, whose 1983 sole “hit” “Whirly Girl” (seen in a vintage music-video clip here) rose to a mighty No. 28 spot on the Billboard charts.
Not only are Frank’s dreams of stardom a pathetically long-lost cause, but that money wasn’t even his and Cindy’s to spend — it was GJ’s savings, and they invaded his bank account to access it. Enraged, GJ decides he’ll turn this unanticipated setback into its own “film school,” constantly videotaping Frank and Cindy to prove (if nothing else) they never fulfill their promises. They are, undoubtedly, colorful subjects: Big-haired aging groupie bombshell Cindy is constantly haranguing her portly man-boy spouse, whom she’s exiled to the basement. It seems neither of them has worked for years (it’s unclear just how they’ve manage to live in suburban comfort all this time), with Mom protesting she can’t possibly apply for jobs until she gets her teeth fixed, while Frank’s attitude is “I’m an artist. I shouldn’t have to work.” When we hear the latter’s recent solo recordings (i.e., the fruit of GJ’s stolen college fund), their stuck-in-the-’80s prog-rock sound confirms that even the feeble lightning of “Whirly Girl” won’t be striking again.
Both are delusional narcissists who simultaneously resent and need each other. Despite good intentions, their parenting skills are predictably disastrous: Cindy once deposited 5-year-old GJ on his grandmother’s doorstep for a long spell when raising him became too inconvenient; unstable, depressive Frank still barges drunkenly in on his stepson at the least appropriate moments, such as whenever he’s brought a girl home.
Such attempted one-night stands, which invariably end with the pickup fleeing after exposure to GJ’s flamboyantly intrusive parents, seem to be over once Junior meets the refreshingly cynical, unflappable Kate (Jane Levy). But she, too, proves to have boundary issues — though hers are as rigid as Frank and Cindy’s are porous — and this fictive subplot winds up seeming a half-hearted stab at diversifying and softening the original documentary’s character roster. More successful is a brief late detour in which our hero goes to see his biological father (Marc Maron), a conspiracy theorist hermit living in a trailer with umpteen cats. Cindy, clearly, knows how to pick ’em.
There’s some sense of corner-turning when Frank and Cindy together orchestrate a mildly triumphant “comeback” concert, and GJ starts to generate his own luck rather than blaming these immature elders for so much personal misfortune. (There’s also a postscript noting that real-life models Cynthia Brown and Frank Garcia got jobs working for Roger Corman, of all people, after the 2007 film came out.) But the script by Echternkamp and Alex Holdridge (“Meet Me in Montenegro,” “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”) is somewhat stymied by its fidelity to the documentary, reproducing its stranger-than-fiction character delights while half-heartedly trying to impose a conventional narrative structure that never quite takes. The result is amiable but somewhat aimless, a glorified riff on source material that required no further elaboration.
Nevertheless, the eponymous leads are almost worth the trouble: Freed from the burden of being beautiful and elegant, Russo throws herself into the tacky whirlwind of Cindy’s emotions (not to mention her personal style) with great aplomb, while Platt convincingly essays a childish sad sack whose late, brief display of rage (over GJ’s video project “making me look like an asshole”) provides surprising additional character depth. Levy is very good, even if Kate ultimately seems a forced, rather superfluous element here. A worse failure is the script’s resistance to making GJ more than a passive, resentfully sarcastic observer. Simmons is fine in the role, but “Frank and Cindy” would have more substance if its hints that Junior may have inherited some of his parents’ hapless, hustling ways were actually developed into a running psychological theme.
Despite its content shortcomings, the pic is lively and resourceful in all packaging departments, with (needless to say) many iterations of bouncy airhead anthem “Whirly Girl” adding to the comedy of nostalgia for salad days that were probably none too fresh in the first place.