Michael Fassbender spends the majority of Lenny Abrahamson's irreverent comedy "Frank" buried underneath a giant plastic head, but the honesty of his performance is on full display. As the titular musician at odds with his real identity, Fassbender's Frank faces a legitimate creative crisis in a world as bafflingly offbeat as his prevalent mask. Abramson's risky decision to keep his main character covered up provides an ideal metaphor for a movie that hides its real ideas within a superficially quirky exterior. Though more in love with its silliness than the insights buried inside them, "Frank" works to amusingly irreverent effect when combining the two.
While serving as the movie's main enigma, Fassbender's character is actually a supporting figure in the movie's depiction of frustrated songwriter Jon (Donhhall Gleeson), who's randomly lumped into Frank's experimental noise rock band while roaming the beachside and discovering the group watching their keyboard playing attempt to commit suicide. Coming after a clever opening sequence in which Jon struggles in vain to write lyrics about the boring events around him, these moments establish a world of lonely, troubled souls that's inherently comical — an enjoyable formula that quickly snaps into place.
Recruited by the group's sound expert Don (Scoot McNairy), Jon is thrust onstage for an under-attended gig, where he gets his first taste of Frank's strangely energetic delivery. But the moment is fleeting, and a technical problem throws the band into a fit that causes them to storm offstage. All is not for Jon, however: Back at his deadbeat job, he gets a call from Don explaining that Frank has summoned him to help out with another gig. Instead, the befuddled young man winds up stuck in a cabin for nearly a year helping the group record an album against impossible odds — namely, Frank's whimsically perfectionist approach, which finds him refining every small detail and refusing to record a track until it sounds exactly right. Meanwhile, the group's resources are drying up and tensions start to rise. In the process, Abramson shows how Jon's idealism evolves as the perceived coolness of the band members starts to fray. In particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal is very funny as the stone-faced Clara, the group's moody drummer and Frank's girlfriend, who never gives Jon a break. Yet it's Fassbender, whose lanky figure leads to an endearingly slapstick performance mainly comprised of jutting arms and legs, who constantly dominates the screen.
Abrahamson's imprecise tone, which depicts these events with a persistent deadpan quality, calls to mind Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's "Leningrad Cowboys" movies, in which the titular rockabilly band drifts through an ambivalent landscape while finding the sole means of expressing themselves through music. Abrahamson's style lacks the refined wit of Kaurismaki's work but maintains a similarly weird atmosphere. While the team behind "Frank" has denied it, the Fassbender character appears to have been based at least in part on musician Christopher Mark Sievey, who performed as "Frank Sidebottom" in the eighties and nineties while wearing a similar bulbous head. And there's no doubting that, as the movie heads toward a climactic performance and Frank's inevitable emotional breakdown — while Jon rises to the challenge of salvaging the band — its portrayal of artistic desperation comes from a real place.
But you have sort through a lot of heavy-handed whimsy to see it. Drawing from Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan's screenplay, Abrahamson litters the narrative with Jon's superimposed tweets and Tumblr posts, and a key plot ingredient involves how many hits the group's video has received on YouTube. These devices have a cheery satirical quality that emphasizes the challenges of mechanical pressures in the digital age, but they're never quite as funny as the filmmakers intend. Even so, the social media threaded throughout the story effectively sets up a late second act set at the South by Southwest music festival, when "Frank" practically transforms into a documentary of the scene's chaos and capacity to smother aspiring artists uncertain of their talents.
Pairing cartoonish personalities with credible insecurities, "Frank" is a perceptive work of cultural criticism, but only for those willing to operate on its zany level. Even then, however, the movie's full potential is squandered by failing to show enough of the band's potential throughout — we never hear an entire song from start to finish until the very end, although at least it's worth the wait: Fassbender's Ian Curtis-like delivery of the anthemic "I Love You All" is at once catchy and melancholic, neatly encapsulating the movie's central drama, even as it hides beneath a cryptic mask of its own.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Though it received a mixed response at Sundance, the movie should find its defenders and shows definite cult potential. A midsize distributor able to play up the oddball comedy and curiosity surrounding Fassbender's performance could chart a healthy path for "Frank" in limited release, but its longterm prospects are questionable.