By Scott Bowles/Gannett News Service
“Frank” can be hard to wrap your head around, and it’s impossible to sing along to one of his tunes. But that’s the point of the clunky-if-earnest comedy about a literal band of misfits led by a singer who never takes off his mascot-size headgear. Ever.
Michael Fassbender plays the title character, but Frank really is about Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a wannabe keyboardist and full-time office drone who pens songs about his daily-grind world. When he stumbles on alt-band the Soronprfbs — and its current keyboardist, who is attempting suicide — Jon suddenly has a gig.
Aside from Frank, the Soronprfbs features Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an anti-Yoko Ono determined to maintain the integrity of the band, even if it means stabbing sellouts.
“Frank’s” first half-hour is a blistering romp. Fassbender’s gargantuan head and muffled crooning of songs like “The Ginger Crouton” is hilarious and, given the success of bands-in-disguise such as Daft Punk, not that far-fetched.
But Frank’s gimmick is what keeps director Lenny Abrahamson from reaching the sublime. The Irish-German Fassbender is a wonder of an actor, and his American accent is spot on. But he can’t eclipse a costume that makes him look like a reject from a Jack in the Box commercial. And, as Andy Serkis of Gollum fame will attest, moviegoers need to see an actor’s eyes to connect (we didn’t like Darth Vader until he took off the helmet). But “Frank” keeps friends and fans at such a distance, his character feels detached from us, too.
It doesn’t help that the band stinks. They may be avant-garde and hot on social media, but they sound like Jim Morrison gargling. “Frank” conveys so little excitement for live performances that it undercuts one of the movie’s primary themes.
So credit the film for high notes that have nothing to do with song. Frank, it turns out, is a troubled kid who uses a helmet to mask his insecurities. Clara is deeper than a knife-wielding lunatic, and a discussion about how many YouTube hits it takes to be a celebrity rings frighteningly authentic.
“Frank” stumbles in the third act, as the movie shifts from comedy to drama. But its characters are so unique, its story so visually arresting, the film can’t help but hit an emotional chord. Even if Frank insists on keeping a straight face.