As a performer, Michael Fassbender dives headfirst and fearlessly into challenges, be it playing a soul-(and body)-bearing sex addict, a shameless slave driver, or an iconic, metal-manipulating super-villain. For his latest challenge, the German-born leading man who has been inspiring crushes all over the globe has tucked his gorgeous face away into a grotesque paper mache mask for Lenny Abrahamson's outlandish dramedy Frank.
Inspired by the performance style of a deeply quirky English comedian/musician known as Frank Sidebottom, Frank revolves around the titular musician (Fassbender) who faces every moment of ever day--from showers to meals to sleep--with a large, cartoonish, paper mache mask over his head. Fassbender is unrecognizable. His chiseled countenance is hidden, and his natural accent washed away in favor of a warm and guileless American one. But Frank is not the hero of this story. He's the guru that a damaged batch of band members can't do without.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, an Irish pencil pusher with grand ambitions of becoming a legendary musician. When a bizarre chance encounter introduces him to a band called "Soronprfbs" (don't worry, not even they know how to pronounce it), Jon is quick to network, scoring an unlikely but welcomed gig! From there, he is fatefully--and at times forcefully--entangled into the band's quest to record an album. This a slow-going process, as every band mate overflows with an endless barrage of dysfunction, rage, violence and anti-social behavior. But Jon's documenting of their progress on Twitter and Youtube snags Soronprfbs a coveted spot at the SXSW music festival.
With such an underdog setup, Frank might sound poised for a kind of Little Miss Sunshine eccentric but cheerful finale. But Frank is not such a jaunty underdog tale. It is a grim beast, studded spiteful bullying, abrasive music, and a disturbingly selfish protagonist. Gleeson--so often cast as the wide-eyed innocent--is here tasked with playing a manipulative and self-centered opportunist. It's a role that chafes, and never seems to settle right onto his open gaze.
As the band's manager, Scoot McNairy -- crusted in a bulky beard and mustache -- offers Jon entry to the weird and enticing world of Frank. He serves as a bridge between the movie's everyman and its cavalcade of kooky creative types, which includes an ever-sulking nearly mute percussionist (Carla Azar) and a brooding bass player (Francois Civil), who spits out French one-liners like its acid. Slinking around like an ill-tempered and underfed jungle cat in silky robes and sour expressions, Maggie Gyllenhaal grounds the sordid tone as Clara. She is the band's Theremin player (obviously) and second-in-command. She is fiercely protective of Frank, and distrustful (understandably) of Jon, who feels somehow entitled to creative genius.
But genius here is a slippery and dangerous thing. Frank is so obsessed with creating a perfect album that recording is stalled for months on end. Frank is not a portrait of music as creation, but music as compulsion. This is more a band of misfits than musicians. Both of which are established so quickly that it's a marvel Frank's hero can't see past his own desperate wishes to see these people for what they are. Instead, he pushes to change them and their music, with jagged and dangerous results.
A production design full of strange and willfully unglamorous details deftly builds the world of Soronprfbs, from its various paper mache heads to its whimsical homemade instruments and the careless yet cool outfits slumped onto its assembly of maniac musicians. Every touch makes Frank feel specific and intimate. But personally, being so close to these deeply miserable people made me feel smothered, and desperate for escape. I followed where Frank was going, but it's not somewhere I want to go.
There's an easy verve to Frank that makes it instantly compelling. Fassbender is brilliant as a bobble-headed free spirit, and brings a welcomed vibrancy to the bleak world of his band mates. However, this is a would-be romp that offers a heartbreaking lesson that not everyone is extraordinary. The quirk and charm might make it seem friendly, but at its core, Frank is a jaundiced drama that's less about the joy of creation and more about the needed catharsis of it.