“Being Frank” isn’t very amusing, which normally would be the most damning thing one might say about an ostensible comedy. But that really isn’t the worst thing about it. There is something ineffably creepy about this contrived and mirthless farce about a demanding family man whose rebellious son discovers his dad has secretly maintained a second family in a nearby town for some 18 years. It’s a premise that could have been played for heavy drama, or even as a horror movie. In this case, however, director Miranda Bailey and writer Glen Lakin strain mightily for laughs without much success, and wind up treating the son’s discovery of his father’s deception, and their subsequent efforts to sustain it, as a bonding experience for them.
Jim Gaffigan plays Frank, the bigamist dad, who exploits his position as CEO of his family-owned ketchup business to take frequent and lengthy “business trips” — to Japan, he claims — that serve as cover stories while he divides his time between his two families. Philip (Logan Miller), the 17-year-old son in what might be called Family No. 1, has long viewed his father as an overbearing control freak, and can’t resist the temptation to sow some wild oats during spring break in a lakeside resort town while Frank is, ahem, away on business.
Shortly after his arrival there, however, Philip spots Frank with Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), a lovely teenager, and assumes his dad is having an affair. The good news: Frank isn’t dallying with an age-inappropriate lover. The bad news: Kelley actually is Frank’s daughter, part of a Family No. 2 that also includes Bonnie (Samantha Mathis), his artistically inclined wife, and Eddie (Gage Polchlopek), his amiable jock son. The worst news: Frank seems a lot nicer, and more loving, when he’s part of this household.
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At least, that’s how Philip sizes up the situation when he pays an unannounced visit to his father’s other home, introducing himself as the son of Frank’s best friend (who, of course, no one in Family No. 2 has ever seen) and greatly enjoying the discomfort this causes for Frank. Initially, Philip offers to keep quiet about Frank’s double life if his dad agrees to foot the bill for his attending NYU. But one thing leads to another — though not quickly enough — and soon Philip is involved in efforts to keep his mom (Anna Gunn) and kid sister (Emerson Tate Alexander) from learning the truth when they inconveniently arrive on the scene.
Periodically, “Being Frank” seems poised to lurch into melodrama, or at least soap opera, especially when Frank explains to Phillip how and why he started living double lives — in a scene that gives Gaffigan his one chance to briefly come off as sympathetic — and when Eddie fleetingly indicates he has his own set of daddy issues. But Bailey and Lakin aren’t able to make any of the serious moments at all impactful. (Rest assured, no one ever brings up the fact that bigamy is a crime, not just a plot device, and that Frank could be arrested at any moment.)
As for the funny business, well, it’s not nearly funny enough. Indeed, the movie is littered with scenes — such as a lakeside holiday gathering obviously intended to resemble an al fresco version of a Feydeau farce — that never provide amusing payoff for strenuous build-up. On the other hand, to give credit where it is due: Alex Karpovsky does earn a few chuckles as an over-age stoner who’s pressed into service to pose as Frank’s best buddy. Better still, during one of his character’s rare moments of lucidity, he stops the silliness in its tracks by giving a blunt appraisal of Frank’s (and Philip’s) moral cowardice.
By the way: “Being Frank” (which premiered under the title “You Can Choose Your Family” at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival) is set in 1992, and while there isn’t much in the way of period detail — a vintage pop tune here, a Clinton-Gore campaign poster there — it was probably a good idea to have the story unfold at a time when Google and social media could conceivably make it much more difficult for someone like Frank to maintain separate lives in towns that don’t look like they’re too far apart. Try to imagine another family tagging dad in a Facebook post. That wouldn’t make for a very long movie, would it?