An extraordinarily well-sustained one-joke movie, Lenny Abrahamson's "Frank" has no earthly reason to function beyond the 10-minute point. And yet there it is: a functioning, funny, weirdly touching fable of artistic angst and aspiration, a meditation on fame and its terrors and the metaphoric usefulness of masks and huge fake heads.
Some background before we get to the oddity at hand. "Frank" was inspired by the late English musician and comedian Chris Sievey's stage persona, Frank Sidebottom. Resembling the straight-laced nephew of Big Boy of hamburger fame, Sidebottom had enormous circular eyes, plastered-down jet-black hair and an eternally open mouth.
Now, what is "Frank"? It comes from a memoir by Jon Ronson, who wrote the screenplay with Peter Straughan, a specialist in espionage tales ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"). The movie begins innocently enough with wry, deft scenes from the drabbish existence of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring songwriter in his 20s whose lyrics come from ordinary life ("lady in the blue coat ... do you know lady in the red coat?"). Suddenly, a lightning bolt of an opportunity strikes. Jon flukes into becoming the replacement keyboard player for a touring band with the hilariously unpronounceable name of Soronprfbs. The driving force and frontman is Frank, played by Michael Fassbender.
Not that you'd notice. For the majority of the picture, the tortured musician at the heart of "Frank" remains underneath his fake head, even when he's showering. The film follows Jon's year with the band as its members, including Maggie Gyllenhaal as the fabulously hostile theremin player, hole up in a remote forest cabin to record an album. Then the film busts open and travels to America, after Jon convinces his skeptical bandmates to try their luck at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
Who is hiding behind the chipper false front in "Frank"? Suffice to say the movie, droll both verbally and visually, knows what to reveal and what to conceal. Some of the throwaway bits detailing the recording sessions are choice. "We should make an entire album out of this sound," Frank mutters at one point, opening and closing and opening and closing a door.
Fassbender has a face most audiences appreciate, so there's a built-in element of frustration comedy in "Frank." Somehow it works; the actor deploys a flat, vaguely Midwestern-loner American dialect that's especially good when Frank is pawing his way through one of his Jim Morrison-style riffs, full of sound and fury signifying an artist on the verge of ... something. Abrahamson takes that something just seriously enough. Give the film's premise the required inch, and "Frank" will hand you a mile of eccentric rewards.
"Frank" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Running time: 1:34