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Originally published Friday, August 22, 2014 at 4:41 PM

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‘Frank’ hides its star to make point about oversharing

What would make a high-profile actor decide to spend most of a movie concealed by a cartoon face that renders him unrecognizable? And apart from a sense of masochistic mischief, what would prompt someone to make a movie with just that conceit?


Los Angeles Times

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NEW YORK — Modern movie stardom is dependent on many things, but perhaps none more so than well-known, good-looking faces appearing in new films.

So what would make a high-profile actor decide to spend most of a movie concealed by a cartoon face that renders him unrecognizable? And apart from a sense of masochistic mischief, what would prompt someone to make a movie with just that conceit?

It’s a question that will be running through your head with the release of Magnolia Films’ new indie dramedy “Frank,” directed by the Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson and starring Michael Fassbender. (It has not yet opened in Seattle.)

“Head” is a key word, since Fassbender — famous as Magneto in the “X-Men” series and for rigorous dramas such as “12 Years a Slave” — spends most of the film in a fully concealing apparatus that looks like a cross between a Lego mini figure and one of those inflatable replicas of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

If you see the movie, you may find yourself furtively checking your phone halfway through wondering if you misread Fassbender’s billing — or, perhaps, calming a doubting spouse who wants to rush back to the ticket window asking for a refund.

But it’s Fassbender under there, as a character inspired by Frank Sidebottom, a real-life musician who, in the tradition of the Residents and Daft Punk, was almost never seen performing without the disguise.

“Frank” actually takes this character one step further, since the Daft Punk duo presumably takes its masks off in private. Fassbender’s Frank keeps it on all the time — even, as another character matter-of-factly notes, while showering and brushing his teeth.

And technically he’s not even Frank Sidebottom but a character named Frank inspired by him. In fact, Frank Sidebottom wasn’t Frank Sidebottom — he was a character of sorts played onstage by the musician Chris Sievey in late-1980s England. The journalist Jon Ronson, at the time an aspiring rock keyboardist, was recruited rather spontaneously into Sievey’s band, and he co-wrote this script in part based on that experience. (Sievey died in 2010.)

TMI, TMZ

“I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘What the ... is this?’ ” Fassbender said during an interview. “It’s just bizarre and original and I thought, ‘I gotta do this.’ ”

Abrahamson said he had in mind a commentary on the increasingly entangled world of creativity and celebrity, and the promotional realm where the two now often meet.

“Modern entertainment can encourage the public’s fetishization of the personality over the work,” Abrahamson said. “And that leads to a split between the person who makes the work and the showman who has to go out there and sell it. It’s a real fracture, and Frank is basically saying, ‘What happens if you don’t let that take place?’ ”

In other words, in an age of social-media oversharing, when we have at once built up and torn down the legend of stars, “Frank” questions the whole machine. The film is asking if we’ve fully contemplated a world where an appetite for celebrity has overwhelmed our sense of mystery. It wonders if, in this TMZ era, ambiguity may be the most watchable spectacle of all.

And it does so by casting Fassbender — who, as Abrahamson notes, “is not just a famous actor, but someone whose face is talked about more than other famous actors.”

Irony within irony

Of course, the irony in this is that getting a movie like this funded — its $2 million budget was bankrolled largely by the U.K.’s Film4 and British Film Institute — relies precisely on the star power this film in part seeks to debunk.

Abrahamson said that financiers, mainly from England and Ireland, were aware from the outset that they would be covering up their best-known asset and made their peace with it early on.

For his part, Fassbender said he didn’t think of it in terms of his own stardom but just a strange story about what happens when an artist is “so pure” he doesn’t want to show his face.

Though he couldn’t really see out of the mask, Fassbender said acting in the film wasn’t a challenge. In fact, he noted, “It was quite liberating. It’s like you put on fancy dress or a Halloween costume and you feel a little invincible.” Plus, he added wryly, “If I didn’t want to go to work, I just sent in the double.”

Still, there’s a creative hurdle to clear when filmgoers can’t register any shift in reactions. At one point Frank narrates his reactions (“Underneath I’m giving you a welcoming smile” or “Lips pursed together as if to say enough frivolity”), prompting a bandmate played by Maggie Gyllenhaal to ask him to knock it off.

All of this is not an affect, we learn, but Frank’s way of dealing with a crippling anxiety. In fact, when the mask does eventually come off, the legend built up around it quickly crumbles.

The director sees this as a kind of “Wizard of Oz” moment, only this time with modern celebrity as the great facade to be unmasked. “At the end you don’t find the little guy behind the curtain but the A-list actor,” Abrahamson said.

Of course, you’ll have known it was Michael Fassbender the entire time. There’s no keeping that kind of secret in this age of celebrity press.



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