Michael Fassbender spends almost all of Frank, a new deadpan comedy opening in select theaters this Friday, Aug. 15, wearing a giant papier-mâché head. His character, who shares a name with the title, never takes it off — not even in the shower. It’s a little weird, he admits, but insists that “normal faces are weird too.” “Don’t get me started on lips,” he says. “Like the edges of a very serious wound.” He has a point.
Frank is the opposite of a vanity role, and he’s an entertaining, telling choice for a recent Oscar nominee and X-Men antihero whose talent is matched by his conspicuous, slightly sinister handsomeness. As Frank, the lead singer of a band with the unpronouncable name of Soronprfbs, Fassbender is intentionally rendered unrecognizable — he’s all booming voice and erratic physicality, still the center of attention, but his face is an oversize, cartoonish blank. And he’s compelling despite, or because of, the mask.
It’s a choice that at first seems whimsical, then annoying, then alarming, which is the point of the movie, a low-key exploration of the connection between creativity and eccentricity and how it tends to get romanticized. Frank is a dark comedy that floats in on a cloud of quirk, but ends up somewhere tougher and sadder, if not without hope.
Directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, who’s next slated to adapt Emma Donoghue’s best-seller Room to the big screen, Frank doesn’t start with its title character. It starts with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Weasley from the Harry Potter series), an office drone with songwriting aspirations — though when inspiration strikes and he sits down to compose, he realizes a few bars in that he’s actually just reconstituting a Madness tune.
Jon is stable, suburban, painfully normal, living with his parents and tweeting about the sandwich he’s eating for lunch, and when he crosses paths with Soronprfbs, they represent all his ideas about what it means to be artistic vibrantly come to life. When he first sees them, they’re parked by the sea, in which their keyboardist is trying to drown himself. When the man, shivering but alive, is carted off in an ambulance, Jon volunteers his services for the night’s show to Don (Scoot McNairy), the friendliest band member, who tells him to show up at the gig.
While it doesn’t go all that well, soon Jon is worming his way into the band as they retreat to an island to record an album, though not everyone’s happy he’s there. The theremin-playing Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is openly hostile, Baraque (François Civil) only speaks to him in French, and Nana (Carla Azar) doesn’t talk to him at all. But it’s Frank that Jon is drawn to, and as Don observes, that’s not unusual for any of them. “Sooner or later you’re going to get the feeling… why can’t I be Frank?”
Frank is a genius, though that doesn’t necessarily translate to accessible music. On stage, he lurches to the mic and groans out non sequiturs (“ginger crouton, salted joints”), coming across like a Wes Anderson take on Ian Curtis — then, halfway through a song, the band gets in a fight and walks off. Frank can, for obvious reasons, be hard to read, though he helpfully offers to describe his facial expression out loud (“Big non-threatening grin!”) for Jon. But he’s also charismatic and a little magical, and Jon blossoms under his attention, beginning to believe that the band has the possibility to make it big, and that he knows how to make it happen.
Frank’s an absurdist comedy, but it has a sharp edge when it comes to Jon’s juvenile ideas about how art can only come from pain (and how, by being around the band’s oddness, he might absorb some real talent). Jon accepts Don’s confession that he spent time in an institution with easy equanimity, because of course, any real musician has to be a little nuts, and besides, that story about how he used to boink mannequins is pretty hilarious. Jon worships Frank, in part because Frank fits into his idea of how creatives behave.
But the movie itself isn’t so quick with Don’s history, or about Frank’s own habits, which aren’t affectations. The giant mask’s inspired by the one worn by Frank Sidebottom, a character played by real-life musician and comedian Chris Sievey, but as Jon is slow to learn, Frank’s not playing a part. He can’t help but be himself, cartoon head and all, and he’s not able to modulate either his work or his behavior in order to be a better rock star.
Frank’s strangeness isn’t something he can turn off, and Frank’s triumph comes from how it’s able to play its title character’s peculiarities for humor one minute and pathos the next. The role of Frank isn’t the biggest one Fassbender’s played, but it’s charmingly weird (like lips!) and deceptively fragile, a man whose uniqueness is what makes him appealing and what makes him vulnerable.