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'Frank' an offbeat dive through the looking glass of creativity

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'Frank' is loosely inspired by Chris Sievey's alter ego Frank Sidebottom, a musician with a large fake head
Is the masked man of 'Frank' a genius, is he crazy, is he both?
'Frank': Meet the Soronprfbs and their frontman, who sports a huge fiberglass head

Odd, offbeat, somehow endearing, the bleakly comic "Frank" has its own kind of charm as well as some pointed, poignant things to say about the mysterious nature of creativity, where it comes from and where it might all go.

With the ability to be true to itself and its own eccentric vision, "Frank" is on the same page with its protagonist and namesake, the enigmatic lead singer of an avant-garde rock band with a deliberately unpronounceable name (The Soronprfbs), a man never seen without a huge fiberglass head with a cartoonish face painted on it.

Exceptionally played by Michael Fassbender, making fine use of his voice and his body, Frank is both charismatic and enigmatic, the ultimate unfathomable creative genius whose thoughts and emotions are hard to read because his face is never seen.

As written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan and directed by Ireland's Lenny Abrahamson, "Frank" is loosely inspired by one of the alter egos of British cult figure Chris Sievey, a musician with a large fake head named Frank Sidebottom.

This Frank, however, turns out to be an American from Bluff, Kan., who turns up in an unnamed British seaside town and totally upends the life of an ordinary young man named Jon who lives with his parents and works at a dead-end coat and tie job.

Well, maybe not totally ordinary. Jon, played with a perfect open innocence by Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan Gleeson's son), is also a musician forever trying to write songs. The ones we hear demonstrate more ambition than skill, but with 14 Twitter followers, where's the harm in that?

Then comes a fateful convergence. The Soronprfbs play Jon's town, and wacky coincidences lead to a gig substituting for the group's indisposed keyboardist and a desultory local engagement, which is where Jon gets his first puzzled glimpse of Frank.

That evening leads to a phone call from Don, the band's cool manager (gifted shape-shifter Scoot McNairy). "We're doing this really major thing in Ireland. You in?" he asks. With dreams of rock stardom dancing in his head, Jon is definitely in, and through the looking glass he goes, with results that neither he nor, frankly, the band even begins to anticipate.

First, Don fills Jon in about Frank and the head, which he never takes off, even to sleep, meaning he takes in liquids through a tube and has trouble seeing. "You're just going to have to go with this," Don sagely advises him. "With all his issues, Frank is the 100% sanest cat I've ever met."

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the rest of the bandmates, including morose drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and hostile bassist Baraque (François Civil), who takes one look at Jon's cheerful face and snarls in French, "You disgust me." And then there is Clara, Theremin virtuoso and queen of severe (a perfectly cast Maggie Gyllenhaal), who oozes contempt from every pore.

This group ends up at a remote Irish locale where the mandate is that the bandmates will stay as long as it takes to record an album that meets Frank's standards. Which turns out to be quite a long time, because Frank is an exacting perfectionist who is not above creating his own system of notation, not to mention his own musical instruments.

None of this fazes the unquashably cheerful, gee-whiz Jon. Convinced that Frank is a genius and that he and the band are on the verge of greatness, the newcomer tirelessly tweets and blogs sentiments like "I can't wait to dive into the creative maelstrom." At least that's what he thinks.

In addition to being surprisingly amusing, "Frank" benefits greatly from co-writer Ronson's time with similar avant-garde ensembles. The film gives full credit to how deeply serious these strange musicians are about their art and sees as well that there is something quite magical about Frank and his gifts.

And, much to its credit, "Frank's" implicit questions are pointed. Is the masked man a genius, is he crazy, is he both? How much of a good thing is Jon's fresh-faced earnestness? Are his bandmates self-destructive in their distrust of celebrity or just clear-sighted? Even after you've seen this fine film, you may not be totally sure, which is very much points in its favor.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Frank'

MPAA rating: No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing at: Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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