Let’s be frank about Frank. It’s a great comedy that manages to take what can easily be a premise with a very short comedic half-life – that of the lead singer of a band who wears a papier-mâché head all the time – and actually make it grow rather than wither over the course of the film into weak chuckles. It is absurd and witty and in doing so stays funny to the end while also having these surprising scenes of emotional exchange, that serve as a reminder of the power of comedy to often access something very honest and painful in the process of sustained goofiness.
I chose Frank as my Sydney Festival Staff Pick and said then and need to say now that it by no means belongs in the category of best films in this festival, it doesn’t really push the envelope on anything in particular but faultless in mediocrity of filmmaking that leaves the film to stand on its comedic legs. That being said it is absolutely enjoyable and had the whole State Theatre laughing throughout the movie, which is what a film like this needs to do, and absolutely succeeds in. In this way, I see no point dismissing a film simply because it is incredibly middle of the road and a crowd-pleaser – it manages to do that, but also include great witty gems wedged in between the more obvious gags.
The film elicits great comedic performances from the cast, particularly Michael Fassbender, who we don’t often see as a comedic lead let alone in an almost slapstick role, who delivers wholly through physicality and voice to the point where you genuinely begin to see the head differently (there was one emotional scene with Domnhall Gleeson where I had to ask myself did they change the facial expression on the head) because he has unbelievably imbued a still face with emotion. Scoot McNairy as Don was also a strong performance and while I was concerned about what I had seen of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Clara in the promotional material, she manages to make the character work like the rest of the cast, by playing the comedy straight and with sincerity, which is the difference between sustaining the humour and resting line to line to make audiences laugh. I suspect Lenny Abrahamson’s direction was crucial in this, and in this way was the ideal director to tackle this story, not only for its peculiar premise and characters, but because he is able to take what can just be a premise and few funny lines in a script, and make it somehow very real and relatable.
The film is evidently the product of Jon Ronson and has a very writerly tone to the dialogue and in the in way scenes transition into each other very matter-of-factly without disturbing the flow of narrative, also serving as a source of the film’s absurd comedy. It’s necessary that the character of Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, keeps us from a distance from Frank and from the other characters making the moments where we do manage to see behind the mask of Frank and his band, both metaphorically and literally, beautifully tender.
The conceit of the writer written into the story is one that is used often, but it was well utilised in this film, that avoids the common arc of narrator as hero and voice of reason and allows Jon’s ego and presence to swell so much that by the end of the film and in this character’s development, it becomes such a breath of fresh air to return to the ridiculous yet sincere antics of (the band) Soronprfbs. It was nice to see a main character so thoroughly dislikeable and crazy in comparison to the papier mache wearing musician, the aggressive Yoko Ono, his cruel French guitarist and silent drummer, who are rendered absolutely sane in their sincerity to his fame-hungry narcissism.
Another refreshing element of the film was also the absence of an overarching love story. The relationship between Gyllenhaal’s Clara and Fassbender’s Frank is beautiful and genuinely caring, which is something sweeping narrative romances tend to forget to show in the midst of declarations of love and passion. The final scene with the band, was in my opinion, the best and only way to end the film, and it was absolutely important that the character arc for Gleeson’s Jon is left unfinished and without a clichéd resolution of character flaws and anxieties and a presumption of the return to his normal life in England. What is essentially, and frustratingly Jon’s story throughout the film is finally let go by the final scenes where Frank and Sonorprfbs’s lives feel as if they belong to themselves once again and to which Jon and by extension we the audience don’t have a need or right to pry on. The use of technology and Twitter in the film is very effective and furnishes the delivery of one-liners, but also feels like a reminder of the entitlement audiences feel to the emotional lives of others, especially the outsiders or the “freaks”.
All in all, the film is successful in all that it sets out to achieve, and lives up to the promises of the narrative premise of a man who wears a papier mache head and reads his facial expressions out loud, through the hilarity of well-written dialogue, witty one-liners and physical comedy. The success of all this though is also due to the incredibly comedic acting of Gleeson, Fassbender, Gyllenhaal and McNairy and the solid work of Abrahamson to bring this altogether, albeit not necessarily establishing anything unique about his voice as a director aesthetically to accompany his ability to creates films with bizarre individuals at their centre and create something genuine from it. The film challenges that and subverts the norm of comedic films, that otherwise could have easily mined this absurd premise for its comic value, but instead it serves as an often bleak but always charming and quirky reminder of the importance of sincerity in comedy, but also more broadly in life. Half-smile of contemplation .
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