"Frankie Go Boom" opens with a home video from a long-ago washed-out suburban childhood, as Bruce tricks his brother Frankie into a pitfall prank that's both caught on tape and a trap for the two of them; flashing forward to adulthood — or something like it — Frankie (Charlie Hunnam) has exiled himself from everything, holing up in Death Valley to write. And Bruce (Chris O'Dowd, with a solidly American accent) is just getting out of rehab, convinced that the 'films' he makes — really, just footage — of disasters like the one that befell Frankie's wedding three years ago, mean he's a director, what with their huge online 'hit' numbers …
Capturing an L.A. of thwarted and foolish ambition, as well as a family dynamic between two brothers who may be more alike than they would like, writer-director Jordan Roberts' "Frankie Go Boom" is at heart another rumination on the Tolstoyan observation that all unhappy families are unique. At the same time, it takes a few well-earned digs at Hollywood and Internet culture, and a value system that can't distinguish fame from notoriety. Frankie is easily frustrated; Bruce is, easily, frustrating, bragging about how he's going to parlay his rehab connection into a filmmaking gig and constantly shooting video, even at the E.R. "This is a public place," Bruce notes when Frankie admonishes him for surreptitiously videotaping an old man with a head wound; "If they didn't want to be photographed, they shouldn't have come here …"
Shot on the digital Red camera, "Frankie Go Boom" looks lovely, from the barren desert-sunburned day to the busy quiet of the streetlit L.A. night. After Bruce's 'graduation' from rehab — the only event that could usher Frankie home — he literally runs into a woman named Lassie (Lizzy Caplan), or the other way around, as she crashes into his car on her bike heartbroken, drunk and wearing a long coat over fancy lingerie and a bra made of candy necklaces. They then embark on the least advisable — and, for several hours, least consummated — one night stand of all time. Which Frankie films. And posts online. And then realizes that Lassie is the daughter of Bruce's fellow rehab resident Jack (Chris Noth), a faded movie star with blustering charm and a terrible temper who, even as ruined as he is, could still be Bruce's ticket to the big time.
And so the road to redemption — or something like it — is set upon, as Frankie tries to buck up the courage to tell Lassie and Bruce tries to keep Jack from finding out his darling daughter is in a sex tape he made. There'll be burglaries, negotiating with pornographers, Internet 'fame' as an impotent man and life-lessons combined with computer hacking courtesy of one of Bruce's old cellmates, Phil, who is now Phyllis, played by Ron Perlman as a cigar-smoking battleship in a dress who is, of course, nonetheless every inch a lady. There's plenty of L.A. weirdoes — including two A.A. members with dreams of using their dentistry money to make a movie 'about the angels around us' — and the sense of the film industry as a swamp of foolish dreams and unsuitable ambitions is ever-present.
Roberts' comedic instincts are spot-on: The ludicrous sight of Noth exercising on a treadmill in a jockstrap, glistening with foolish pride and greasy sweat, is followed up by a cut to a different angle that makes the scene even more funny. Caplan and Hunnam's tentative romance is sweet, and even as Frankie learns to be more like Bruce and put himself out there — ridiculously, like something out of a bad movie — the film manages to have that big moment both utterly fail and completely work. In a lot of ways, "Frankie Go Boom" is about how grown-ups can stay kids, but it also demonstrates that the only way to grow up is to make childish mistakes and learn from them — or, to paraphrase the title, yes, Frankie go boom; the question is if Frankie will then get back up again. Bright and warm with a stabbing-switchblade sense of flicker-fast folly, "Frankie Go Boom" and its quibbling siblings has a lot more heart than you might expect. [B-]