Wednesday, October 1, 2014

'Frank' review

I would be shocked to hear of anyone who wasn't immediately enticed by the premise of Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. The pitch-black comedy focuses on an eccentric (and possibly mentally ill) musician named Frank who wears a giant  head that completely masks his face. Frank is played by Michael Fassbender, one of the most promising actors of our generation. Mix the quirky plot in with Fassbender and a great supporting cast led by Domnhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy, and you've got a movie that definitely piqued my interest. However, Frank was most definitely not a film that I enjoyed. It's as bland as a movie about a musician with a giant plastic head can be and it just never grabbed my interest. There are certainly moments of inspiration, but it all amounts to a rather dull and tonally inconsistent product in the end.

Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson) is an indie musician who's really going nowhere. He writes songs occasionally, but they're all terrible. He's an exceptional keyboard player. He just doesn't have what it takes to be an artist. However, Jon's luck changes when he meets a band in desperate need of a player after their keyboardist went insane. The band's leader, Don (Scoot McNairy), recruits Jon to play at their next gig and it's there that they form a strong friendship. Jon eventually joins the band in a log cabin in the woods and they spend eleven months with the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) who ultimately tries to perfect their sound. Eventually, Jon gets them a gig at South by Southwest, one of the nation's largest music festivals. But their biggest break might end up being their downfall.

The marketing for Frank has been incredibly misleading, only hinting at the film it truly is. This is a pitch-black film about the way that eccentric entertainers mask their true pain with tricks and gadgets. This message is especially timely considering Robin Williams, a famous actor who struggled with severe depression, recently committed suicide. I just wish that those themes were handled better. Frank is a messy movie and it's one that never accomplishes any of its goals. It's too dark to be funny and too sweet to be taken seriously. And ultimately, it's just plain dull. None of it is even remotely interesting, so by the time the important character moments came into play, I wasn't even really paying attention anymore. There was potential for something truly profound and quirky with Frank, but it just ended up being.......weird.

The film is well-written on a thematic level, but screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan never truly delve into what makes the characters tick. We understand that Frank and Clara and Jon are screwed up in one way or another. We just never understand why they're like that. The third act really should delve into Frank's full mental breakdown, but it opts to not explain anything. Not to mention that all of the characters are extremely annoying and uninteresting. Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance is impressive because of just how truly frustrating she is, although I hated the character completely. Fassbender gives a better performance underneath the fake head, yet he still fails to make Frank actually interesting.

Frank's failure is that it believes its disturbed individuals are sweet and endearing in one way or another. They're not. Every one of them made me want to turn the movie off and go do something else. Frank is what makes the movie work at first, but eventually, I really wanted to delve into his psyche, which is something the movie seems relatively uninterested in doing. Jon is also a really tedious protagonist. He's supposed to be the only sane one in a weird world filled with crazy people, but he's just so boring. There's no character arc and there's nothing that made me care about him.

The characters are completely tedious and grating, but does the story keep the movie going? Not really. Frank's road trip story is somewhat intriguing, but it's just terribly bland at most times. Whenever Fassbender is on screen, the movie suddenly jolts awake ever so slightly. Scoot McNairy also has a strong screen presence as the band's leader Don, even though he's only in the movie for a brief amount of time. The main problem with Frank is that the inherent sweetness of the movie is attractive at first, but wears thin fast. This is a dark movie with an annoyingly sweet outer shell and that caused a lot of issues for me.

The best thing that Frank has going for it is something that doesn't work very well. A film about the deeply rooted pain of comedians and enigmatic personalities is a very interesting prospect and if Frank had delved deeper into the psyche of its main character, it might have worked a little bit better. I really appreciate what Abrahamson and the screenwriters were going for, but the characters and story just don't work on any level. It's a well-made and well-meaning film that is completely hollow emotionally and poorly written on a character and story level.

Frank is a movie with shifting tones and an element of quirkiness and sweetness that is annoying. Those elements end up distracting from the true themes of the film. However, all of that would be fine if Frank was actually an intriguing movie with characters and a story that I cared about. Unfortunately, none of it worked for me and it ended up boring me for most of the runtime. Fassbender gives an admirable performance, but even he can't save the film in the end. Chalk this one up as a missed opportunity to explore some truly relevant and provocative themes.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (5.9/10)

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