|THE MANY FACES OF FRANK|
Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Scr. Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Francois Civil, Carla Azar, Tess Harper
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Give an actor something to obscure their best feature and then see what they can deliver. I had occasion recently to recall Jack Nicholson in Tony Richardson's 1982 The Border where he was forced to wear sunglasses in virtually every exterior shot. Given that Nicholson was playing a Texas border guard, this not only made sense in terms of his character, but it shielded us from one of Nicholson's most expressive facial features. This resulted in one of his all-time best performances. Given that by 1982 Jack's eyes and what he could do with them had already began to border on the cliched, we the audience were afforded the opportunity to see him render work that felt as fresh and vital as it had always been. It's as if the shades rendered the character even more internal - we had to work hard reading him, which made the proceedings rooted in a kind of reality it might not have otherwise had. Nicholson's movements became stiffer, slower and as he was playing someone who was on a slow burn, especially as he began to respond to the horrendous corruption and unfairness with respect to Mexicans sneaking across the border for a slice of America's pie of opportunity, we were able to almost put ourselves inside the character. Most importantly, we had to respond to what he saw without necessarily having a full picture of how to read him.
Michael Fassbender is easily as great an actor as Nicholson, yet he's not quite crossed over into rendering performances rooted in cliches, so it's all the more astonishing to witness his work in Frank.
Co-writer Jon Ronson had been in Chris Sievey's Oh Blimey Big Band once the eccentric musician-comedian frontman of The Freshies had established his "Frank Sidebottom" persona for stage and television. "Frank" was a kind of Pee Wee Herman-like persona who wore a humungous fake head that resembled characters in the early cartoons of the legendary Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Popeye). Though the screenplay for Frank is ultimately fictional, it's based in part on Ronson's journal entries during this period.
The first hour of Frank is especially lovely. It focuses on Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) a young keyboardist/songwriter who is miraculously swept out of his suburban ennui by Don (Scoot McNairy), a taciturnly amusing road manager and plunged headlong into a band led by the title frontman played by Fassbender. At first, Jon's ignored and/or reviled by Frank's eccentric band members (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Francois Civil, Carla Azar), but when he invests his "nest-egg" inheritance into the recording of a new album, their disdain transforms into guarded acceptance. Gyllenhaal even grudgingly prongs herself upon Jon's root, claiming disgust, but partaking of it with relish nonetheless. Jon, unbeknownst to the others, has been tweeting his adventures and even uploading clips to YouTube. Eventually, the band develops a sizeable cult following and is invited to launch themselves at the famed SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas.
Both the screenplay and Abrahamson's solid direction keep us delighted and enthralled in the odd creative process, and once the band heads to America, we're equally tantalized by the juxtaposition twixt the bucolic Irish cottage they're initially holed up in and the Big Sky of Texas. Though success looms, the film successfully shifts gears and we're plunged into the reality of the title character which, up until this point, has been mysterious to say the least. What's been funny and borderline (thank Christ for "borders") whimsical, becomes deeply and painfully moving.
Fassbender is the engine which ultimate drives the film. Saddled with his fake head, which he never removes, is what forces the great actor to utilize his innate gifts. With both his oft-muffled voice and body (as well as eventual sign language and verbal descriptions to convey his facial expressions under the mask), Fassbender extraordinarily delivers a myriad of emotions.
For anyone who discovered the world of true musical iconoclasts like Captain Beefheart, David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame and the multitude of genuinely alternative musicians during the punk and new wave phases in the late 70s and early 80s will especially be filled with a nostalgic glow that occasionally borders on epiphanies of the most hallowed kind. Frank is a film that seems featherweight, but its depiction of both the creative process and mental illness creeps up slowly and grabs you. Most of all, it doesn't ever really let go, long after the movie is over.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** Four Stars
Frank is a VSC release which continues its successful run with an engagement at The Royal in Toronto.
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