In “Frank,” Fassbender Gets a Big Head and Half a Great Script

Frank poster

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Michael Fassbender (seen earlier this summer in X-Men: Days of Future Past), as the title character of Frank (which opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre), spends most of the movie wearing a large papier-mâché head, and this visual conceit is almost reason enough to see the film. Requiring an actor considered, by some, to be one of the sexiest around, to cover his pulchritudinous features with an ungainly apparatus seems like a silly joke on the audience. But it is quite the opposite, as the fake head serves, instead, to mute our usual reaction to the presence of a movie star, which is to project onto him or her the longstanding feelings we have for them. In Frank, the head allows Fassbender to act, hidden from our preconceptions, and to create a vibrant and moving portrayal of a deeply damaged being with only his body as a tool. And he is marvelous. It’s too bad the film is only halfway so, but that first half is almost pure genius. As long as the movie stays in Ireland, where it begins, it works, but once the film shifts to America and to the SXSW Festival (where, incidentally, I first saw it), it becomes almost pedestrian.

Frank is about a rock band fronted by a man with a serious mental illness who copes with his madness by quite literally showing a different face to the world. Frank (the man) is also a bit of a musical prodigy, and his insanity and talent attract a group of similarly unstable musicians. Into this bizarre world comes Domhnall Gleeson – an actor I confess to find tiresome (except in this summer’s Calvary) – a paragon of normality and mediocrity, who is both drawn to Frank and his entourage and repelled by their rejection of the conventions of normal behavior. In the first half of the movie, as the band rehearses and then records what is to be a major album for them, the film flirts with true greatness, examining the meanings of art and insanity, and the potential connection between the two, without being too obvious in its intentions. But then, once the album is recorded, the band is invited to perform in America, and the earlier subtlety vanishes. Obvious dialogue and clumsy dichotomies – art vs. mediocrity, sanity vs. insanity, etc. – take over the script, and the dullness that is Gleeson takes over the movie. The final scene somewhat redeems the film, but the end result is still a very mixed bag. For that powerful first hour, however, I must recommend it. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction) and Scoot McNairy (Monsters) – both almost as good as Fassbender – do fine work in supporting roles as a counterbalance to the parts that don’t succeed.

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