There aren’t many films, or indeed that many directors, that would happily cast an A-list star like Michael Fassbender as a character who basically never shows his face, but ‘Frank’ and Lenny Abrahamson are bold enough to do so. Abrahamson, a pioneering Irish film-maker who has previously made inroads in to the black comedy genre with films like the relentlessly grim and yet constantly giggle-worthy ‘Adam & Paul’, sets out here to pay a very strange and only passing homage to Chris Sievey, the musician who created Frank Sidebottom, a papier-mâché head wearing oddball of a comic entertainer on whom this story is only very loosely based. What ensues is a genuinely unique experience that revels in its own strangeness, often to such an extent that it starts to become inaccessible, but it’s this resolute refusal to do anything other than be as downright weird as possible that makes it a worthwhile, if slightly grating, experience.
The story is told through the eyes of Domhnall Gleeson’s character Jon, an amateur musician who longs for the chance of some recognition and who gets roped in to Frank’s band Soronprfbs (yes, that is the band’s name) purely by chance, and under amusingly morose circumstances. Gleeson’s hesitating charm and dry wit is definitely in the Hugh Grant mould, but that’s not to say he’s a one-note actor as he blends in to his fantastically weird scenario brilliantly and soon we are roped in to this weird and sometimes wonderful, sometimes baffling world by the scruff of our necks. Gleeson is ably aided by a wild performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal and the always likeable Scoot McNairy as the band’s manager and general motivator, and soon it starts to feel like a family gathering, rife with disagreement, favouritism and side-taking that threatens the troubled, talented band’s rise to stardom. This sometimes drives the insanity in to overdrive and when played for laughs can work pretty well, but Abrahamson’s obsession with exploring the band’s bizarre dynamic can also serve to disconnect us from the core emotion of the story, which is just how much the music matters to these people, albeit in their different ways.
‘Frank’ must be applauded for its unflinching and determined attempt to bring voice to a story and general idea that seems so scattershot it seems beyond comprehension that it could fill out a full 95 minutes. Fassbender manages to bring character and an emotional depth to a character that is entirely devoid of any facial expression and his interplay with the other characters is always entertaining but ‘Frank’ lacks a substantial enough plot to keep you engrossed for its full running time as a sense of emotional disconnect begins to surface as you progress further and further in to the film as everything becomes more and more of a caricature and less about the way music can be a release for anyone and everyone. While it is definitely the case that Abrahamson’s vision is one to be praised, ‘Frank’ is unfortunately a bit of a missed opportunity, though a worthwhile watch nonetheless.
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