What chutzpah it takes to hire one of the world’s most recognizable movie stars and then render him completely unrecognizable. With his deadpan indie comedy Frank, director Lenny Abrahamson does just that, hiding the often-photographed face of Michael Fassbender behind a giant papier-mâché mask. Fassbender plays the title character, a cult musician who never removes his bulbous, custom-made stage head, even to sleep or shower. Is Frank seriously committed to his shtick, or should he just be committed? The truth is closer to the latter than the former, but when the man performs—gyrating with country-preacher conviction, spewing stream-of-consciousness poetry in a rich baritone—the fine line separating madness from genius blurs.
As fans of underground U.K. novelty acts may note, Frank has been loosely modeled—in both name and headwear—on Frank Sidebottom, the alter ego of English musician and comedian Chris Sievey. One of the screenwriters, Jon Ronson, spent some time playing keyboards in Sidebottom’s band, and he’s shaped his experiences into a relentlessly quirky fish-out-of-water story. The film’s true protagonist isn’t Frank, but the stardom-craving ringer who insinuates himself into his creative bubble. Endlessly tweeting about his mundane English suburban life, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) has much more ambition than talent. (Most of his songs are annoying, unfinished Casio jingles.) But when the keyboardist of Frank’s band, the Soronprfbs, tries to drown himself, Jon bumbles his way into a disastrous gig—and from there, the band itself.
For a while, Frank seems like a one-joke movie, its humor derived solely from the tension between a meek careerist and the reclusive eccentrics barely tolerating his existence. Frank’s oddball bandmates, all of whom intensely revere their frontman, include an unstable manager (Scoot McNairy) with a thing for mannequins, a near-silent drummer (Carla Azar), a surly French guitarist (François Civil), and Frank’s closest collaborator, the theremin-playing Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, dripping with disdain). Gleeson, playing straight man to a bunch of anti-conformist weirdos, gets a few big laughs out of his character’s discomfort (and awful songwriting). Yet, as the group decamps to a reclusive woodland cabin to record an album, viewers may start feeling Jon’s pain—the fatigue of being bombarded constantly with offbeat “realness.”
Eventually, however, Frank deepens into something more meaningful, in part, because its empathy shifts from the “hero” to the enigmatic artist whose coattails he rides. Thanks to Jon’s incognito (self) promotion of the band, the Soronprfbs score an invitation to play South By Southwest. “It’s just like Paris, Texas,” Jon remarks during their road trip to the festival—and indeed, the influence of Wim Wenders is felt during the film’s more melancholic backstretch. Frank is interested in the role social media plays in building empty hype and the effect trying to cater to a hypothetical audience can have on creativity. Slyly, it also concerns itself with the dangers of creating mythology out of mental illness. For all his superficial similarity to Sidebottom, Frank bears a greater psychological resemblance to Daniel Johnston, the real-life Texas troubadour who spent part of his adult life in an institution. As one character notes late into the movie, Frank was creative before he got sick; his personality problems didn’t spark his artistry, they hindered it.
Is it disingenuous of the movie to get serious about Frank’s condition after an hour or so of playing it for broad laughs? Or is that trajectory the whole point—a way of mimicking, and then renouncing, how popular culture bestows 15 minutes of freak-show fame on the genuinely unwell? Either way, beneath that cartoon mascot visage is an actor capable of reconciling the serious and the comic aspects of his character. Denied access to his famous features, Fassbender nevertheless turns Frank into an actual person—a damaged dreamer with a childlike naïveté and enthusiasm. And the guy isn’t lacking in the pipes department either: Frank is never more endearing than when Fassbender has a mic to his mouth, spitting out the hilariously batshit lyrics of his “most likeable song ever,” or literally singing the praises of his cohorts during an affecting showstopper. Perhaps obscuring the Irish actor’s identity wasn’t such a radical move after all. His talent is hard to conceal.