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Frank (2014) Review

Updated on August 15, 2014

A small frenzy is being made over this indie film. And its own disposition puts us in a difficult spot when judging it, because it wants to be quirky and, well, it is. So how do we think and feel about a quirky indie dramedy about quirky people? If we judge it as too quirky, we risk “not getting the point,” and if we judge it as “not quirky enough” or “stereotypical” we risk “taking it too seriously.” The “cool” thing to do, then, would probably be to like it, especially in light of the wave of praise it’s getting. Or would it?

In cases like this, I find the best approach to be to consider what the filmmaker aims to do based on what takes place, and then to judge how well they do it. And, the way I see it, this film aims to take us into the chaotic creative birthing process of a band whose psyche is nearly impossible to penetrate, and to show us their core humanity by the end. True, it is a comedy, but there is no doubt by the end that it wants to be taken seriously. This is an admirable aim for the subject matter at hand, except for one problem: the narrative device used to accomplish this is an outsider’s perspective.

How does this affect the story in its telling? For one thing, we are always one remove from the human core of these people. We never follow them around. We never enter their psyches. What the storytellers have told us, in effect, is “these people are too abnormal to carry a narrative, so we’re going to give you a likeable little sailboat for the dark and chaotic waters.” I say, “Stop holding my hand; throw me in and let me swim!!” I would love to watch the hints of this group’s creative process unfold in more than a series of montages of them at their “weirdest.” Much more than I care to follow Domhnall Gleeson’s tweeted observances and judgments. Why constantly be pulled out of the reality rather than experience it for myself?

Gleeson makes this already insufferable writing weakness even less bearable by playing his character with pretty much the same one note he plays everything, as an endlessly polite, incessantly whiny British kid. That seems to be the point of many of his scenes, a joke we are meant to laugh at, except that over the course of the story we are also meant to be him, to sympathize. And yet he doesn’t have any real arc. Far more engaging is Fassbender’s distant and mysterious title character, who ends up as simply a gimmick for storytellers who don’t know how to handle the mystery man archetype to portray the profound psychological effect this kind of character can have on a protagonist by revealing a reflection of their own untapped inner powers. The character that does get a little closer to that kind of inner-to-outer manifestation is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s almost too one-dimensionally strange-angry (strangry?) threatened manipulative female member. She at least tries to push our tweeting narrator to limits he doesn’t ever come to.

The frustrating thing is that with these characters there is so much potential. In the final scene, in fact, as our protagonist just kind of vanishes from the plot, we realize that the story was actually supposed to be about this band whose psyche we were barred from! Which makes the film's title itself misleading. The whole approach, in both screenplay and direction, is a bizarre misstep that seems to stem from fear of sitting with and facing the darkness of injured people. If we can only come to eventually admire them from a distance, the film says, we’ve done our job. But my question is, who wants to be a part of that disingenuous “we”?

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