“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” showed plenty of demented comedic potential in its first season, but the arrival of Danny DeVito in Season 2 was the special sauce that gave the show its bite. As erstwhile entrepreneur-turned-middle-aged slummer Frank Reynolds, DeVito epitomized the show’s anarchic possibilities because he always looked a little out of place.
While the original quartet shared the same age and rascally energy as they went about their aimless routine at Paddy’s Pub, Frank invaded most scenarios like a gnome gone bad, his rampant hedonism guaranteeing that any given “It’s Always Sunny” episode had the potential to careen into chaos.
That potential has only accelerated over the past decade, with DeVito transforming into the great slapstick figure of the modern TV era. Increasingly disheveled as the show goes on, Frank’s the main reason to keep watching “It’s Always Sunny,” even as its writers undergo a reasonable struggle to freshen up the dark comedic twists. A Frank-centric episode automatically gives the show its best material, so it comes as no great surprise that the eleventh season has derived its strongest bits from the character: “Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo” erupts into insanity when Frank decides to spice up their invented game with his own torture porn “horror” stage; “Frank Falls Out of the Window” puts him at the center of a flashback episode in which Dennis and Dee convince their father he’s reliving the second season; “The Gang Hits the Slopes” has Frank scheming to overtake a ski resort. The humor and style of these episodes vary wildly, as does their quality, but Frank’s deviance always hits its mark.
So it follows that last week’s “Being Frank” — which takes place exclusively from Frank’s point of view — boils down the show’s mayhem-as-comedy to its wacky essence. Previously, Frank’s hilarious appeal stemmed from the writers’ ability to bring us too close to his world for comfort. But “Being Frank” goes one step further by putting us at the center of his lunacy.
From his morning urination routine (into two buckets, one for spillover) to a cracked-out saga involving an attempted break-in, Frank’s perspective yields one of the most depraved episodes in the show’s history. Some fans have complained that it’s not funny enough, but the entirety of “Being Frank” amounts to one prolonged sick gag that just keeps going. The sheer insanity of its pace is the kind of deranged punchline we’ve come to expect from this show.
The first-person approach also gets the jump on “Hardcore Henry,” a fast-paced, GoPro-shot action vehicle hitting theaters this April. The movie first made waves on the festival circuit last fall, when it was acquired for $10 million. “Hardcore Henry” — which was previously just called “Hardcore” — follows a “Robocop”-like cyborg over the course of a real time adventure that finds him shooting through hordes of baddies at the behest of a shape-shifting Sharlto Copley. The adrenaline-fueled proceedings recall the relentless momentum of the “Crank” movies with a number of phenomenally choreographed scenes, until the gimmick gets old and we’re left with little more than a live-action video game. Clocking in at a brisk 17 minutes, “Being Frank” falls into that trap, delivering nearly as much violence and insanity without losing its comedic footing.
The real inspiration for “Being Frank,” however, doesn’t even stem from its namesake. The echoes of “Being John Malkovich” pale in comparison to the debt the episode owes to Gaspar Noé’s entry in the first-person genre, 2009’s psychedelic action-drama “Enter the Void.” Noe’s hectic odyssey, in which an American expat in Tokyo finds himself in the midst of a drug exchange that turns violent, follows the character’s perspective even as he loses his life and becomes a wandering ghost. “Being Frank” never goes quite that far, but it comes close, and not only because Frank nearly dies more than once.
Director Heath Cullens — who has directed all of this season’s Frank-centric episodes — expertly apes Noe’s frantic pace and erratic camerawork as Frank’s day gets increasingly messed up. When he heads to the bar, Frank’s internal monologue and external dialogue are in regular conflict: He stumbles on the gang scheming to steal back their impounded car, and while he doesn’t quite understand his role in their plan, he dutifully takes his orders — until he forgets about them.
Before long, he’s veering around town, and the antics keep piling up. After trading lewd texts with his pal Bill (Lance Barber) and causing accidents on the road, he’s passing out from a slice of bread and waking up in the hospital, speeding back toward the gang, accidentally eating sleeping pills, stumbling into a shiva and snorting drugs in the bathroom, witnessing a hallucinatory vision of his head exploding like a balloon…and let’s not forget about the multiple times he wields a gun, sexually harasses a nurse and contends with a feisty guard dog. There’s enough material here to fuel a whole season, and “Being Frank” gets it done in one-tenth the time.
At every moment, Frank’s essentially on a warpath that folds in on itself, as he repeatedly loses his way and returns to the mission on instinct. But he still emerges victorious, and within the confines of the show’s unsettling moral equilibrium, he’s something of a hero. That’s the genius of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” where terrible people do terrible things and manage to be charming in the process. Frank’s complete ambivalence about his crazed behavior forms a never-ending joke that somehow, after more than a decade, remains funny as hell.