Artful Dodgers: ‘Frank’ and ‘The Trip to Italy’

By: Daniel Reynolds

It takes a great deal of effort to discuss the film Frank in any normal fashion. On the surface, it’s a film about a bored office drone with dreams of being a musician – or more aptly, a rock star – who is almost accidentally recruited by a small indie band fronted by a mysterious savant-like lead singer. The drone is played with fresh-faced naiveté by Domhnall Gleeson. The lead singer is played with typical abandon by Michael Fassbender. At the end I noticed the film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, was actually inspired by a similar off-kilter artist, Chris Sievey. This is all straight-ahead stuff and you’re probably wondering why I approach with such trepidation. Well you see, while it’s true that Fassbender plays the lead, he appears in most of the movie wearing a large paper mache head. No explanation necessary. He is Frank.

Michael Fassbender as Frank.

Michael Fassbender as Frank.

Of all the arts I’ve often felt music to be the most difficult to approach. Anyone can invent a story, even if it’s a dull account of the day’s events poorly told; or perhaps anyone could paint a picture, however abstract they’d like it to be. We’re all amateur photographers and filmmakers nowadays, with technology aiding our heart’s desire to document our lives. But music, to my mind, requires first and foremost a level of technical proficiency that can then be used to translate one’s inner thoughts. You not only have to feel, you have to know. It’s what makes Gleeson’s aspiring musician, Jon so endearing. He’s trapped in self-described “little boxes” singing about what he sees (“Hey little lady, where you going with that baaaaaag?”). He aspires, but is not inspired. It’s tough not to be discouraged when that particular lightning bolt of talent appears destined for other people.

For whatever reason, some people just have it. Jon stands on a rocky beach as members of a band pull a man out of the ocean. A van materializes next to Jon and we learn from the tireless Scoot McNairy (playing Don, the band’s manager and strained voice of reason) that the suicidal swimmer is – was – their keyboardist. Sensing this could be his big break – and blissfully paying no heed to the drowning man warning – Jon volunteers to join the band. He meets the eccentric and enigmatic Frank and after one bizarre gig, goes off to a cottage retreat with his new artistic family Soronprfbs to record an album. Now things get weird.

Along with Don and the titular Frank, the band is filled out by the French pair Baraque and Nana (Francois Civil and Carla Azar) and the adroitly territorial Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). They’re on hand as an embodiment of the experimental artistic bent. Wide-eyed Jon clashes with them immediately. These middle scenes, lodged away at the band’s Big Pink equivalent, show both the ridiculous and troubling sides to any artistic effort. Frank lords over the scene like a goofy eyed sphinx, dispensing riddles and encouragement (and sometimes unhinged violence). Clara works to service Frank’s vision and fend off Jon’s desires for stardom. An album comes together that costs both money and sanity, and the film produces scenes of both humour (Frank suddenly speaking German) and sadness (the band loses a member). At its best though is when Frank follows its musical muse in obscure directions. The rehearsals are strange and intense, Frank sings about birds and tufts in the carpet. One brief aside shows him chasing after a bandmate with a gardening implement. To assist communication, Frank takes to describing his facial expressions, but this ends up working against the desired effect of humanizing him. What’s clear however is that he has it: the confidence, the inspiration, that Amadeus-like lightning bolt that strikes the few and leaves the many mystified.

This doesn’t stop Jon from trying to redirect the bolt his way. Through his tireless social media endeavours (we watch as he gains Twitter followers through comically misrepresented tweets), the band gains something of a cult following. Suddenly, SXSW is calling and Frank may be ready for his debut to the wider world. Jon believes that what he’s lacking is a tortured history, some anguish that he can translate into music. He hopes to short circuit the process through his sojourn with the decidedly unstable artists of the band. With music though, you can’t fake it. Frank may have trouble relating, or just plain existing, but it’s as if his sheltered dome was designed to keep him from feeling too much. As he sings near the end “I love you all.” It’s hard not to believe he really does mean it.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Italy.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Italy.

In Michael Winterbottom‘s sequel to The Trip we’re asked to rejoin friends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they conspire to play versions of themselves and travel around Italy. Unlike with Frank, The Trip to Italy even in name – appears to be all surface. Nobody wears a giant head except for the figurative inflated one each man takes turns pumping up.

As in The Trip, the plot of the sequel is straightforward. Ostensibly to work on food-related articles for a magazine and to potentially publish a book, Coogan and Brydon are sent off to drive and boat around Italy to sample some of its more fanciful restaurants. To that end, the pair cruise through the countryside, haphazardly careen through Rome, and enjoy a couple of boat segues. They eat some delicious looking pastas but I won’t pretend to understand half of the food combinations, despite my own partial Italian background. They stroll through various cemeteries and visit Pompeii. A lot is made of journeying along the same steps of poets Lord Byron (which Brydon notes is just a D away from his name) and Percy Shelley. The men visit houses where the famous poets lived, and even stop off at the beach where Shelley drowned. (Coogan remarks that a painting of Shelley’s funeral pyre is inaccurate; the corpse appears far less bloated than one lost at sea for weeks.) Needless to say, both men, clearly adrift in different stages of mid-life crises, reflect on what death will mean for them.

But I’ve made the film sound like a real downer. In truth, The Trip to Italy, as sumptuously filmed by Winterbottom, is a comedy of the highest order. Coogan and Brydon take digs at Hollywood, they let loose dueling impressions (the Michael Caine returns), and make cracks at the expense of each other’s appearance and career. While the film is loosely scripted, much is left to be improvised by the two leads and in those moments you can glimpse the true joy these two are having at busting each other’s chops. Whether its Coogan explaining his feelings on Michael Bublé or Brydon expounding on the kumquat, we’re laughing with them.

The twist of the film, such as it is, comes with the realization that Coogan and Brydon, or “Coogan” and “Brydon” in this film universe (that also includes the sublime Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), have somewhat switched roles. The nervy Coogan, forever competing, feels much more relaxed, or at least accepting of his status in life, this time out. Here he enjoys the company of his son, rather than work the phones to see if his latest bid at super stardom has gone through. Meanwhile Brydon, last seen as the happy husband and father, is put to some tests that are surprising. While the film is almost all garnish to be seen and enjoyed, you can chew over some subtly plated food for thought.

To look at these men is to see a life’s journey at the crossroads. They’re not broken, and yes, a life in luxury could hardly be called trying. But like Frank the troubled musical genius, there they are: unfinished and searching for creative fulfilment, hungry for some assurances of a legacy, or just hoping to find a place in which to be happy.

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