Unless a movie set in the past opens with a title card telling us the exact time period, we look for clues pinpointing the era.
Ah, there’s a phone on the kitchen wall. This is definitely 20th century.
In the case of “Being Frank,” we’ve already figured out it’s the 1990s — and the year is nailed down when we see “CLINTON/GORE” signs (for election, not re-election).
So, it’s 1992.
The time period matters, because it tells us Frank has been living a double life from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s — and while it wouldn’t be impossible to pull off such a tangled web of deception in present day, the existence of cell phones and GPS and tracking systems and Facebook et al., would sure make it a whole lot harder.
Because Frank is a married man with a wife and two children — and ANOTHER wife and two OTHER children.
This is the dramatically and comedically rich but also dicey and potentially off-putting premise of Miranda Bailey’s “Being Frank,” but thanks to Bailey’s sure-handed guidance, the sharp screenplay by Glen Lakin and the empathic performances from Jim Gaffigan and the supporting cast, the result is a funny and weird and occasionally insightful slice of effed-up-family-life.
The affable Gaffigan, who is married with five children and often invokes universally relatable family situations in his brilliant observational comedy, is one of the most talented and successful stand-ups in the world — but he’s also a solid dramatic actor who performed in “That Championship Season” on Broadway and played Kennedy family friend and attorney Paul Markham in “Chappaquiddick” (2017).
Gaffigan has some of that John Candy likability, which makes him a great choice to play Frank, a guy who seems like your typical middle-aged dad: proudly wearing the cargo shorts and the loud-print short-sleeved shirts, having a bottle of beer after work, manning the grill on vacations, always telling the kids, “Ask your mother.”
But even though Frank is funny and Frank has some admirable qualities and at times we feel for Frank, let’s not kid ourselves: He’s a terrible person who has spent the better part of two decades deceiving and betraying TWO families.
The first Frank we meet is an executive with a ketchup company, married to Laura (Anna Gunn from “Breaking Bad”) who dresses and acts like a TV housewife from an era even earlier than the 1990s, and two children: Philip (Logan Miller), who is 17 and is forever disappointing his taskmaster of a father with his lackluster grades and his lazy ways and his smart mouth, and Philip’s precocious and likable little sister Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander).
A couple of times a month, Frank’s work takes him to Japan for three or four days at a time. (Who knew Japan was such a big player in the ketchup game?)
But when Philip sneaks off to a resort town for a weekend of partying with his best friend Lewis (Daniel Rashid), he’s shocked to see his father there as well — and he spies on his dad, watching in disbelief as Frank “returns home” from a Japan trip and is greeted with open arms by his other wife, Bonnie (Samantha Mathis), and his teenage children, Kelly (Isabelle Phillips) and Eddie (Gage Polchlopek).
Whereas Frank’s marriage to Laura seems almost passion-free, and Frank is a distant, strict father to Philip and Lib, he’s a freewheeling guy with family No. 2 — celebrating his wife’s artistic endeavors, bonding with his jock son on father-son fishing trips, allowing his teen daughter to drink alcohol at home, imposing no curfews.
Philip, who has the smug smart-assery traits of many a John Hughes protagonist, inserts himself into family No. 2, posing as the son of Frank’s imaginary best friend. Frank is horrified — but instead of coming clean, he continues the ruse, with Philip essentially blackmailing him along the way.
This has the makings of a screwball comedy. (Watching Frank huff and puff as he runs from one spot to another in a last-ditch effort to keep his world from exploding is hilarious but also a little sad.) We even get a little “Back to the Future” uncomfortable romance situation when Philip’s half-sister Kelly, who doesn’t know she’s related to Philip, starts to fall for him. And Alex Karpovsky kills as Lewis’ stoner uncle, who is asked to impersonate Frank’s imaginary friend aka Philip’s father, and gets so into character he doesn’t want to step OUT of character.
Gaffigan manages to make Frank somewhat sympathetic, even though Frank’s initial reaction to being caught in a horrific, soul-crushing, decades-long lie is to double down on the deception. Frank’s duplicity and hubris is such that he thinks he’s been doing something noble and selfless all these years, and now that the cat is peeking out over the top of the bag, HE’S the real victim.
What a jerk. But what an interesting jerk to be at the center of a quirky and entertaining deadpan comedy/drama.