There’s a thin line between genius and madness.
Or, if Frank is to be believed, no line at all.
Frank is the sort of movie that sneaks up on you all at once. If I had, for some reason, walked out of the theater five minutes before it ended, and then someone asked me what it was “about,” I wouldn’t have been able say very coherently. There is quite a lot of madness to be found in Frank, coming from a variety of different characters who all seem to be larger than life. You might be forgiven for thinking this is all just a bunch of heightened wackiness — like Wes Anderson goes to South By Southwest. (SXSW actually does make a prominent cameo in this movie.) But to write Frank off as a quirky comedy is a mistake.
The film’s final moments take a jarring dramatic detour, one that is not totally out of sync with what came before — after all, a major character dies midway through the film. But it does feel primed to leave us on a sour, sappy note, because so many indie dramedies do that when they don’t know how else to wrap things up. Too many movies force schmaltz upon us in order to end on a note of portent, as if to fool us that what we just saw had a lot more to say than it really did. For a moment, I thought Frank would, too.
Instead, it ends on just the right note, which is notable in a movie that’s all about some rather discordant music.
Frank begins with Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), trying helplessly to find musical inspiration in the everyday world. A woman in a red coat walks by, and he sings something like: “Hey woman in the red coat, what are you doing with that bag?” Even Jon knows this is not destined to be a hit. Despite his creative doubts, however, Jon still manages to tweet uplifting updates about his creative progress with a handful of familiar banal hashtags that we see displayed on screen — a clever conceit that could easily be annoying in a different sort of movie.
Then, one day, while about to eat a panini he has just tweeted about (#nomnomnom), a chance spectacle has him run across a band with an unpronounceable name that is in dire need of a keyboardist. It’s immediately clear that there are several odd things going on with this band, and it is telling that the craziest member of this group may not be the frontman, Frank, who wears a giant papier-mâché head at all times. (He may not even be the second craziest, in fact.) While Frank is the accepted leader of the group, the driving force behind it all, it seems the strings are really being pulled by the hostile chain-smoker Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who may or may not be romantically involved with Frank. Additional members of the band include Baraque and Nana (Francois Civil and Carla Azar), who remain in the background for much of the film, and the potentially unstable Don (Scoot McNairy), who has a thing for mannequins.Yes, this is a quirky bunch, and for a fairly long stretch of the film it seems we’ll just follow these kooks as they behave in increasingly absurd ways. (Which is not such a bad thing, since many moments in Frank are laugh-out-loud funny.) Clara has a lot of killer one-liners, mostly spewing hatred and threats of violence (not idle threats, as it turns out). The band’s recording sessions are one-of-a-kind and, to put it kindly, less than sonorous. Frank has one of the weirdest soundtracks a movie could ask for, including the delightful “Frank’s Most Likeable Song… Ever” and “I Love You All,” which becomes hauntingly lovely when paired with the themes of the film. (Be warned: I’m not sure any of this music works out of this context, however.)
Most movies follow a fairly predictable set of story beats. Like Frank’s music, Frank the movie follows an entirely different rhythm, so that you can never predict what will happen in any given scene or where the next one will take us. If most movies are Top 40 pop songs, then Frank is straight-up jazz. It’s both refreshing and a little off-putting, but in the end, quite worth the spin. This is no standard behind-the-music movie; there’s no scene of musical inspiration where every member of the band starts jamming together in perfect harmony (except maybe in the very end, and it works). With the exception of “I Love You All,” Frank’s music isn’t very catchy. “Frank’s Most Likeable Song… Ever” isn’t that likeable at all, which ends up being a tragically funny parody of the kinds of songs people actually do like. (Kissing and dancing — that about covers it, right?)
Jon is our protagonist, and Frank uses up-to-date social media both to give us a 21st century spin on voiceover and to further the plot, as Frank and his crew are “discovered” and invited to perform at South By Southwest thanks to the YouTube page he has surreptitiously created to document the creation of Frank’s opus. In many movies, this would be the climactic, triumphant moment, but Frank is unlike just about every other movie out there, so don’t expect things to go too well. Jon is debatably talentless as a songwriter, and we keep expecting him to get better, perhaps with some inspiration from Frank, because that’s what normally happens in this kind of movie. I won’t spoil whether or not this happens, but the film does make some rather bold narrative choices; it takes a Great Gatsby-like approach to its protagonist, telling one man’s story half-heartedly so that it can display the much more fascinating story of another.
As Frank, Michael Fassbender gives a bizzarely captivating performance, given that he’s buried under plaster for nearly all of the movie. (Let’s also give credit to that impassive, Mona Lisa-like giant head, which manages to register shifts in emotion without moving a muscle.) Why cast a movie star in the role at all? we might wonder. Well, for the same reason we hire the beautiful Charlize Theron to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster, then make her sit in makeup for hours just to ugly her up enough so that she looks like an ordinary woman. Because it’s more fun that way. It’s practically a crime to cover up that handsome mug, which shows the daring of director Lenny Abrahamson. Sticking a papier-mâché noggin on the titular character feels like a “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” gimmick, but it isn’t — that is all based on a true story, believe it or not. Many movies use mental illness as a source of easy comedy, and maybe Frank does too, but it does so without pandering. In fact, our ostensibly “sane” protagonist ends up faring the worst in our eyes by the end.
Jon’s interactions with the band play out as if Ed Sheeran had somehow found himself as a member of The Doors, and if you think that sounds like a good match, then you probably have no business seeing this movie. To be a truly gifted artist, perhaps one needs also to be truly batshit crazy, damaged beyond repair, tormented beyond belief. True genius comes at a high, unforgiving price, while the rest of us can only hope and hashtag, counting followers and subscribers in order to stall on creating. Music needs madness, and the mad need music. That’s the world according to Frank, a world best not intruded upon by the rest of us (except by watching this movie). It’s particularly poignant in the wake of the suicide of Robin Williams, another artist who has recently been described as brilliant despite — and possibly because of — his inner demons.
Frank is a boldly unusual film. On the surface, it treads where many quirky dramedies have gone before, but ultimately goes somewhere much deeper and darker at the core. The film’s final scene says everything — it’s one of the more beautiful endings I’ve seen lately. I’m eager to watch Frank again through the prism of what I now believe it is about. How true artistry may be at odds with popularity and social media; the thin line between a mentally ill person and a celebrity. It’s a film that makes fun of anyone who has ever worshipped a musician — which is to say, all of us. In the film, Frank is a genius until he takes his big head off, whereas Frank the movie is revealed to be genius at that very moment. When Frank finally reveals who he is under that large happy mask, the film also reveals what it’s truly about.
In both cases, what’s underneath is freakishly beautiful.