DIR: Lenny Abrahamson • WRI: Peter Straughan • PRO: Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe • DOP: James Mather • MUS: Stephen Rennicks • DES: Richard Bullock • CAST: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Many films aiming to make a statement about art in conflict with commerciality must often contend with a similar push/pull arrangement in the execution of that statement itself. After all, original or groundbreaking as it might be, if an indie flick lands at Sundance with no-one there to live-tweet it, does it make a sound? Aiming to prop itself between these two stools of art and commerce by no more than one over-large paper mache head and a bucketful of ambition is director Lenny Abrahamson’s latest outing, Frank.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a serial-tweeting office drone plagued by dreams of international stardom but rather lacking in the creative drive to see them realized. Enter the Soronprfbs, an eclectic musical outfit whose disdain for vowels is matched only by the eccentricity of frontman Frank (Fassbender), who lives his life enclosed in a huge, cartoonish prop head. Brought into the fold when the band find suddenly find themselves short a keyboardist, Jon sees his chance for stardom and resolves to take it – along the way contending with the bile of acerbic bandmate Clara (Gyllenhal), his own tragic lack of inspiration and fundamental doubts as to whether he’s crossed paths with a musical messiah or a plain old madman.
Frank quickly found an eager audience during its debut at Sundance, and it’s no real surprise why. Charming, funny and bright – starkly so in contrast to Abrahamson’s earlier work – the film delivers consistent belly-laughs while still managing to hit quieter, sombre notes about a genuinely troubled masked man to whom the microphone may as well be an umbilical cord. By turns hilarious and tragic are Jon’s fumbling attempts at inspiration relayed through banal sing-along internal monologues and a Twitter feed constantly appearing on screen but increasingly at odds with the reality of his situation.
Unsurprisingly, Fassbender exhibits impressive range beneath the mask, and the near-violent chemistry between Gylenhaal and Gleeson is crackling. It is likely the latter who delivers the anchoring performance of the film, slipping from wide-eyed to cut-throat as Jon slowly begins to realize that while the sparsely-populated pub gigs and mish-mash of recording techniques are a means to and end for him, for the rest of the band they act as a strange sort of therapy.
However, while certainly interesting as an examination of the notion of celebrity, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Frank is, strangely, Abrahamson’s most conventional effort to date. While ostensibly hiding the film’s most marketable feature behind a paper mache mask, it is likely that this very choice to take one of the world’s most sought-after faces and hide it in plain sight has drawn quite so much of the buzz that would class Frank as unique.
“You’re just going to have to go with this,” Jon is told by the band’s manager rather early on, but in truth there is little enough to go with that truly strays from the beaten path. A typical three act structure put together with bright, agreeable colour tones and a titular character who can’t help but be endearing, the overriding sense is of an unconventional idea packaged in its most marketable form, where “quirky” is a buzzword thrown out for poster by-lines as opposed to any real indication of divergence.
With subject matter wrestling with the idea of art vs commerciality, it ultimately leans towards the latter – but this is nothing to mourn. Frank is sharply-scripted, beautifully-shot and suitably suspicious of the entire vague notion of celebrity. However, while likely bound for success and justifiably so, one is simply left with the entirely unreasonable but nonetheless niggling feeling that this very message might be lost in the scramble to fit statues with tiny paper mache heads come awards season.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Frank is released on 9th May 2014