It’s difficult to not let a smile creep onto your face whenever the titular character of Frank (Michael Fassbender) comes on screen in Lenny Abrahamson’s quirky Sundance standout “Frank.” Along with having a normal fit body he wears an oversized, painted artificial head. An artificial head complete with big, wide, blue eyes and a small oval mouth resembling a fish’s. With the head on—which is most of the movie—Frank always looks like he’s in a constant state of astonishment. He’s the leader of an experimental pop band but wearing this head is more than just an attempt to have an original appearance as a musician. For Frank, wearing the head is a lifestyle; even in a private place like the shower he insists on wearing it.
So then why does he wear it? Well, he’s crazy. If that sounds like a spoiler it really isn’t. While Frank never directly addresses it—when confronted about it by someone early on he responds by saying all faces are weird—it’s pretty easy to figure out. We learn that Frank had an abusive childhood and spent time in a mental institution. This oversized head is his way of coping with the world around him, his security blanket. He’s only truly alive when he has the head on and it’s easy to see why his band mates—people with their own issues—fawn over him. He’s enthusiastic and encouraging, almost spiritual. Always managing to find inspiration in everything, even a loose thread on a couch. But he’s also obsessive and unstable.
He’s a peculiar, and entertaining, character to watch and Fassbender—having to perform without his own face—gives an endearing, spacey performance. His muffled, slightly slurring voice perfectly suited to such an eccentric person. Unfortunately, the movie around him isn’t quite as eccentric and inspired but instead a relatively one-note tale of weirdos who don’t want to be normal and the normal outsider who threatens their lifestyle.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Frank and his merry band of misfits are seen from the point of view of that normal outsider Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a struggling musician who becomes the band’s keyboardist. Gleeson is appealing in the role but the character is nothing more than your typical dorky Indie film protagonist. A loser, tired of his mundane unsuccessful life that’s just happy to be a part of something so bizarre. So happy that he constantly updates his Twitter for us to see on screen. (A quirky touch that gets old fast.) Without a second thought he goes to live with them on an isolated compound out in the woods to help record their album.
In their almost blind devotion to Frank and his “genius” the band resembles a cult. A dysfunctional cult at that. There’s constant bickering among them and certain members threaten to kill themselves or leave the compound, all while they try and make music through unorthodox ways. At one point during a playing session Frank makes everyone pretend to be chickens, and pretend to lay invisible eggs. All of this can be amusing to watch but after a while it starts to feel directionless. You want to say: O.K., we get it, they’re all weird! What else is there? The supporting characters by and large remain underdeveloped. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s cold and intense performance as Clara—who doesn’t like Jon being there—starts to feel especially narrow and inauthentic.
However, as the movie enters its homestretch things only get more fatiguing. After weeks of recording videos of the band and uploading them to YouTube, Jon lands them a gig at South By Southwest. A gig that doesn’t go so well. Again, all of this feels aimless, Abrahamson doesn’t seem to have much to say other than: Look how weird these guys are! And really the only point of tension is that Jon wants to give the band exposure, but they don’t want it. Because, you know, they’re weird and unstable. The picture becomes a schlep and even the trajectory of Frank’s character becomes cliché and uninteresting. Initially an enigmatic personality he eventually turns into just an average mentally ill person. Again, not a spoiler.
Fassbender gives a great performance and it never gets old watching him and his unusual head interact with the environment around him. “Frank” is by no means a bad movie--there are great moments in it, even during the tedious third act--but in the end, Frank’s an entertainingly bizarre character in need of a better movie.