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Movie Beat: Lenny Abrahamson's "Frank" starts out comedic, ends up heartbreaking
by JENNIFFER WARDELL
Aug 30, 2014 | 1536 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo courtesy of Element Pictures
Photo courtesy of Element Pictures
slideshow

Rated R for language and some sexual content

Written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhall, Scoot McNairy and more

Grade: 

Don't let the ridiculous paper-mâché head fool you.

On the surface, "Frank" seems like the new "Spinal Tap" for all those post-modernist-neo-expressionist-whatever bands who do entire “experimental” albums based on distortion. At first, it seems impossible that a guy who spends his entire life in a paper mache head could be anything but a joke, and when you add in the keyboardist who loves screeching noises and the broody French twins you're sure this is supposed to be parody.

(Note: Frank is actually based off a real performer, Frank Sidebottom, who wore a paper-mâché head to perform and had a ... unique musical style, shall we say. But as far as I can tell, he took the head off occasionally.)

The first part of the movie supports the certainty that you've stumbled into the best absurdist comedy you've seen all year. The songs are flat-out ridiculous, and the "artistic getaway" required to make them even more so. Anyone who's ever read an "artistic vision statement" will find a healthy dose of spot-on parody, but even for those who haven't there's enough nonsense going on to keep you smiling.

Domhnall Gleeson is our tour guide through the insanity, a stand-in for the audience that keeps his wonderfully dry humor even as he finds himself slowly getting sucked in to the madness. As Frank himself, Michael Fassbender gets to show off wonderful goofball tendencies his normal film roles rarely have room for.

It's impossible to tell when the movie starts to veer away from comedy into someplace darker and sadder. Not even a surprise suicide is an obvious tipoff, followed as it is by a very "Spinal Tap"-like disposal of the ashes, and as you sit there watching you tell yourself that things will be okay. This is supposed to be a comedy, right? Things always work out in a comedy, and even if they don't they manage to leave you too busy laughing to care.

It turns out, though, that "Frank" never thought of itself as funny. Fassbender shows Frank's increasing fragility, slowly revealing him as a mentally ill man who uses the paper-mâché head to escape a world he can't deal with on his own. When we do finally see Fassbender's face it's absolutely heartbreaking. Maggie Gyllenhaall is equally tragic in her own way, her parodic "angry musician" character turns out to be fiercely protective and just a little bit in love with someone who will probably never be ready to love her back.

Gleeson becomes more and more helpless as the story progresses, caught up like we are in the realization that he didn't understand the things that were happening around him at all. We all thought we were in a comedy. 

But to "Frank," the strangeness was never a joke. It was simply a painful truth.

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