Frank (2014) (Spoilers)
Jon, an aspiring musician and songwriter, lives with his parents and works at a job he doesn’t appear to enjoy. He seems infused with a sense of his capacity for success, though what he’s bringing to the table is not as clear. He is affable and ambitious and a bit confused. Frank opens with a broadly comic scene where he looks around him and tries to thread passing details into a song. This probably first occurred about five minutes after the invention of songwriting, and the recognition gets you on his side. He’s embarrassed by it. The next jokes have him tweeting out thoughts to almost no one, saying nothing at all. It feels at first like a step down, an indulgence the script should have trimmed. Traditional cinematic voiceover in the vernacular of social media isn’t doing much work as commentary, and less as comedy. And there are alarm bells that this might be heading somewhere silly, like the character emerged from a David Brooks column.
Frank is up to something, though, and what it’s going for with Jon only makes sense by way of a musical force with a large artificial head on his shoulders that never, ever, comes off. Frank is the one thing any viewer knows before the start of the film, printed right there on the ticket. And if you know more going in, he’s even more captivating. Michael Fassbender is an actor gripping enough to turn an unbroken stare into the only erotic sequence in a film about sex. Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal are invaluable people to have around, but Fassbender is a rising movie star saying funny things behind a giant paper mache expression covering a beautiful face. The audience’s eyes naturally follow Jon’s.
The young keyboard player is enlisted in the album Frank and his band are working on, and he sees, for a time, what we see: things to learn about, a group of people and a non-traditional songwriting process. Of course, a literal band of quirky characters decamping to a cabin to nurture their creativity risks catching the shots left over after we’re done with Zach Braff auteur projects. Frank, though, only needs the place to be funny, and it works just fine. It’s not trying to convince you of character growth, because Jon isn’t actually evolving, he’s watching, the same as the viewer. And he’s continuing to share his thoughts on social media, now with video clips and longer observations. He gains a growing audience from the raw material of an outlier project.
He isn’t half-bad at marketing, and he’s selling something with an appeal the audience in the theater can recognize. He gets the band, from the British Isles, a slot at an indie festival in the States. There might be a concern that he is actively exploiting the mental illness of the bandleader, yet Frank is unambiguous that its title character isn’t opposed to embrace by a popular audience. The problem instead is that the chance for stardom Jon sees and the type of acceptance Frank would want do not mean the same thing. And what’s charming and legitimate about the band, seen by the audience in widescreen, is not something we have any reason to think Jon is conveying in his online excerpts, if he even shares the same idea of their appeal.
Until now, he’s been a frustrating character, in the way young leads can be. He complains that even though he’s paying the rent he isn’t getting creative input. At one point, he tosses off a line about wanting misery to fuel his creative drive, the exact thing a twelve-year-old in Moonrise Kingdom took down in a sentence. He slides downward, though, to more of a lost cause than Llewyn Davis. The departure from the cabin shifts the film from clever fun with twee tropes to indicting the people fascinated by them, and Frank from then on delivers the least sympathetic portrait of a lead character in recent years.
He fails spectacularly at migrating the band from a mystery in a video clip to a convincing in-person act. He’s worse at paying any attention whatsoever to their lives or their comfort or their existence. Frank gets off and running as a film about the creative process and a person in search of lessons about how to make art. But the story Jon wants to craft from Frank‘s contents is far more narcissistic and indulgent than what we’ve actually seen. And after it all falls apart, he pulls the film’s second major lever—unmasking Frank—as an act of abuse.
The film stays funny—Fassbender in a ridiculous helmet making ridiculous music, Gyllenhaal showing physical comedy chops I never knew she had. But the good times wear off, until they’re gone entirely, because Jon has no idea what he’s doing, or even about what he’s seen. After a year with Frank, he can’t describe any detail about the five-sixths of him he should know something about, or the man underneath whose creative process was the sole purported focus of the boy’s time in the woods. He knows he’s older, but he doesn’t have any sense of what acting older might mean. And even when he tracks him down, after a time apart, he still doesn’t recognize him.
Frank can still tap out a few notes on the piano, and it’s better than anything Jon has managed. He leaves Fassbender, his face now open, with an affable encouragement about what he’s played. Frank pointedly tells him the tune wasn’t any good. He had spent most of the film encouraging those around him, but he only affirmed what he understood. And even if no longer has a grasp on himself, he still gets a lot more about right and wrong than the boy looking at him.
The relentless chronicler without any eye for detail, the pro-creativity creative who only has an ear for “likable,” the sharer without any conception of what’s private: Jon’s right there in front of us, and by the end he’s specific enough to escape caricature. He’s destroyed something for no reason at all because he never saw it in the first place. And a film that began with kids’ gloves on has, by its home stretch, stopped softening the blow. It’s the rare critique of millenials to feel both fair and urgent.
Jon at least brings Frank back to his bandmates. Their creative center, shaken and shuffling, his eyes mostly turned downward, looks like he’ll have a long road back. They’re happy to see him, all the same, and when Frank reconnects with people he actually knows, the music sounds right again. Far more importantly, they seem okay. The hopeful tableau does not include Jon, and it shouldn’t. The only decent thing left for him do is leave: his phone in his pocket, this moment for them, the band together, the door behind him.
It’s an act of mercy.