Despite having a title character who wears a huge papier-mache mask over his head – 24/7 – “Frank” is no gimmick film. The dark comedy is a psychologically complex, thoroughly nutty, and resonantly sad story about creative genius, mental illness, social media and carpet fiber, and it’s one of the year’s top surprises.
Like the films of Spike Jonze or fare such as “Robot and Frank” or “Kabluey,” the story qualifies as a melancholy pleasure. Comedy is often tragedy with a twist, and director Lenny Abrahamson (“Garage”) demonstrates that dynamic, assisted by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s sharp, sensitive screenplay.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an untalented rock-star wannabe, gets a lucky break when, on an English beach, he meets Don (Scoot McNairy), who manages an art-rock band. Don hires Jon to replace the group’s suicidal keyboardist. A gig in Ireland and an album-recording project in a lakeside cabin are on tap.
The band is led by Frank (Michael Fassbender), whose music reflects mental illness as well as talent and who never takes off his above-mentioned mask (picture a shell-shocked version of the Bob’s Big Boy symbol). Frank shows kindness and support to Jon, while the other band members resent the newcomer.
Particularly hostile is theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who maintains a strong protective (and romantic) interest in Frank.
Jon is clueless to Frank’s fragility. He also doesn’t understand the band’s disinterest in commercial success.
Tension mounts when Jon tells the others that he’s been posting videos of the band on YouTube, landing the group a performance slot at the South by Southwest festival. Frank embraces the invitation, but the others rightfully worry that the high-profile opportunity could prove disastrous.
Not everything works here. Clara, despite Gyllenhaal’s strong comic efforts, seems conceived as a one-dimensional despot, and viewers don’t get to know the band’s angry drummer (Carla Azar) and bassist (Francois Civil).
But as the story moves from the band’s cabin lair to the SXSW extravaganza to a glimpse of Frank’s past, Abrahamson delivers not just an entertaining ride through an eccentric groove, but a substantial tale that embraces self-expression, satirizes arty music, and treats mental illness with the seriousness it demands. It debunks the sentiment that madness makes you a better artist. It addresses how personal worth is equated with the number of Twitter followers one has.
Loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the creation of musician-comedian Chris Sievey, Frank is an inspired character, and Fassbender, playing nearly all his scenes with the mask, acting almost entirely with his arms and voice, brings him to life. Whether Frank is instructing his musicians to squawk like birds or describing his facial expressions beneath the mask (“a welcoming smile”) or writing a song about a carpet strand, Frank could never carry the this risky movie were he not embodied by a superb actor.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
Written by Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson