Is it easier to make a ‘fun’ film than a dark and serious one? And if a filmmaker is good at making a particular type of film, is it a bad thing for them to try something new, to take a risk and make something totally unlike anything that they have done before. As with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – or, at least, as it appears – is the weight of expectation sometimes just too much for a working filmmaker to bear? In my review of What Richard Did, I wrote that Lenny Abrahamson was “Ireland’s most important living filmmaker.” A big statement and, on balance, a deeply unhelpful one – isn’t it better after all to have a range of interesting voices than a single “most important” one? Whether Abrahamson was afraid of being typecast – I suppose directors can be typecast too – as the director of low budget dark dramas or he just wanted to have fun, the result is Frank – one of this year’s most pointless films.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is trying to get into music but he doesn’t really have all that much talent. He ends up joining a band, the unpronounceable Soronprfbs, headed by Frank – a damaged man in a giant papier-mâché head (played by Michael Fassbender). No one else in the band (including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil and Carla Azar) likes Jon very much. They go to Ireland and live in a remote cabin for almost a year in order to record an album. Jon films the process on his phone and his videos become popular on Youtube, which thrusts the band into the limelight. But are they ready for it?
Some have said that Frank is the kind of film that half the audience will love and the other half will hate, though that is overly simplistic. Some certainly seem to love it and others will certainly hate it, but my own reaction was merely initial disappointment followed by boredom. For me, it was deeply uninteresting, it wasn’t funny or engaging. It is one of those heavily ironic films that seem to enjoy their own company – not unlike Wes Anderson films – and smugly disregard the audience, secure in the knowledge that someone somewhere will love it and be vocal enough about it to make it a cult film. Frank is one of those films that will be trendy and might even be talked about in almost religious terms twenty years from now – like The Big Lebowski is today. All the naysayers who saw it when it came out and who didn’t get it will be stuck with some kind of old conservative label – their reviews quoted ironically in the same way that Pauline Kael’s negative review of Star Wars is now a T-shirt. All of that sounds bitter so suffice it to say that Frank is one of those films that has nothing much to say about anything, doesn’t go anywhere interesting and doesn’t bother to make you care.
Those who will love Frank have probably already made up their minds about going to see it, though I wonder if Lenny Abrahamson was the deciding factor for many of them. It is probably just as well because there is very little of what made Abrahamson’s previous work so good. There are no interesting characters. The comedy falls flat and the drama is only semi-successful at the very end of the film, in which the re-formed Sonorprfbs play one last song as Jon looks on. It is a decent conclusion to a film that spent the previous ninety minutes wondering around, looking for an idea and a point. Ultimately, the film is about how we tend to deify artists, how fandom (and social media) can exaggerate aspects of an artist’s life and work beyond all proportion – Kurt Cobain is a good example as is (I suppose) calling Lenny Abrahamson “Ireland’s most important living filmmaker.” So Frank, then, is an intentionally poor film designed to make Abrahamson’s life a little easier. Maybe. Probably not. But Frank leaves you with very little else to think about.
For me, music films don’t tend to work. You probably have to be in a band or at least have some kind of ambition in that direction to fully appreciate Almost Famous (its just OK) or that other terrible film now gaining a cult following (these days films don’t wait twenty years to become rediscovered gems) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Frank has nothing interesting in it and it isn’t as funny or as emotionally involving as it might think it is – assuming any thought went into it whatsoever. Taken as a whole, it is just gibberish, unfocused and annoying. It isn’t a film I hate, it’s just one that did absolutely nothing for me. Which is a pity because I really like Lenny Abrahamson’s other films – whether they are millstones or not.