Review: Frank

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Frank

Few films explore the creative process as insightfully -- and bizarrely -- as Frank.

A strange, genre-defying mix of dark and slapstick comedy, Frank follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a struggling British musician whose life is forever changed when he joins an avant-garde pop band with an unpronounceable name, the Soronprfbs.

As the band spends months recording a new album in a remote cabin in Ireland, Jon discovers his bandmates are enormously talented and predictably oddball. Singer and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a snarling terror. Drummer Nana (Carla Azar) says almost nothing (we sense this may be a good thing), and bass player Baraque (François Civil) is a snooty Frenchman who apparently speaks only in insults. But the oddest of the lot is Frank (Michael Fassbender), a charismatic but emotionally disturbed lead singer who, afraid to face the world directly, wears a giant papier-mâché head at all times.

Jon finds Frank fascinating, admiring his talent and wanting to understand the enigmatic singer. But Frank's unique brand of creative genius also intimidates Jon, who realizes he has almost no musical talent. Thus, joining a band of gifted musicians -- his long-awaited big break -- has, ironically, shattered his musical dreams.

Still, Jon hopes that if he can't help his bandmates musically, he can at least convince the proudly anti-commercial group to pursue mainstream success. Thanks in part to a viral YouTube video, Jon persuades the Soronprfbs that success might not spoil their art. He also prods them to head for the SXSW Music Festival, a pivotal event in both the band's career and Frank's story arc.

As it follows the ups and downs of the Soronprfbs (no -- we never do learn how to pronounce it), Frank says a lot about the creative process and the power struggles that plague all too many bands. In this case, the struggle is between Clara and Jon; they feud not only over creative differences, but also over who will be Frank's closest collaborator and, strangely, his caregiver. Jon's fascination with Frank borders on unhealthy, and his turf war with the jealous and possessive Clara is an odd twist on a common theme in movies about musicians.

Frank is also a compelling study of mental illness, as the titular character lives in his dark world of profound fear and insecurity. His psychoses are many and yet vaguely defined, a host of demons that render him so fearful that he must hide his identity. And yet the demons are strangely liberating; hiding in his fake head, he can create and perform his music in complete anonymity, pushing new musical boundaries without fear of criticism. (That is, direct criticism. If audiences don't like the music, they'll condemn the persona with the giant head, not the terrified person within it.)

Frank is, of course, the quintessential tormented creative genius, like so many we've seen onscreen before. His mix of madness and brilliance is nothing new, but Frank develops him with such a terrific blend of pathos, satire and quirky comedy that the character is fresh and fascinating. He's unforgettable -- not just for his giant head, but for his surprising insights into who he is and how his illness informs his personality and art. (The character is loosely rooted in reality. His inspiration is the late British cult musician and comedian Chris Sievey, whose comic persona Frank Sidebottom wore a giant head while performing.)

If Frank is unforgettable, Fassbender deserves much of the credit, yet again displaying his incredible range as an actor. The role isn't easy -- we can't see Frank's facial expressions, so he must use his body to convey his emotions. Playing Frank requires a lot of physicality, and Fassbender nails the character's somewhat awkward physical presence, especially in moments of broad slapstick comedy. He's just as effective when he quietly lets us know that the guy inside the head is deeply troubled. (Fassbender also nails Frank's bland Midwestern non-accent; as with many of the actor's roles, you'd never know he's German.)

The sometimes terrifying Clara may be less memorable than Frank (it's hard to compete with that giant head), but Gyllenhaal portrays her with steely, sexy perfection. She's the band's fiercest defender and also its worst enemy, protective of the Soronprfbs' musical brand -- it can be an acquired taste -- and determined to save the group from the scourge of commercialism. Not surprisingly, she's just about as crazy as Frank; Gyllenhaal, always a great comic actress, plays up her dysfunction in hilarious ways.

An off-kilter story of musical and mental mayhem, Frank is a wonderfully weird movie that balances its anarchic sensibilities with a big heart. As heartbreaking is as it is entertaining, it's one of this year's best films.

Austin/Texas connections: Frank was filmed partly in Austin during the 2013 SXSW Music Festival and screened at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. Scoot McNairy (the band's manager, Don) is a Dallas native.