“Frank” dances a hipster’s shimmy around the idea of creative madness, but it never comes close enough to get burned by the flames. As you may or may not have heard, the movie features Michael Fassbender in a giant papier-mache head as the title character, a mystical, mercurial rock ’n’ roll guru whose tiny cult — the other members of his band, basically — worship him as a demi-god. Walking a line between droll comedy and a darker, more unsettling drama that the filmmakers aren’t quite up to, “Frank” is an entertaining curio with flashes of inspiration. That’s also a pretty good description of Frank’s music.
The movie’s main character — the normal in this house of weird — isn’t Frank but Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s up-and-coming kid), a woebegone wannabe songwriter in Dublin who broadcasts his blah life to all six of his Twitter followers. A chance encounter on a windy beach gives Jon a valuable connection to a passing rock group with the inscrutable name of Soronprfb; like drummers in “Spinal Tap,” keyboard players exit Frank’s band at an alarming rate, and the latest is currently trying to drown himself. After Jon subsequently proves himself at a gig, he’s then invited — kidnapped, really — to a rural island for months of communal living and, hopefully, recording.
If Jon is our blank canvas, Frank and the other bandmembers supply the paint splatters. The most terrifying is Clara, a multi-instrumentalist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most hilariously gloomy. “Stay away from my [expletive] theremin,” she tells Jon by way of introduction and soon the two are wrestling for control of Frank’s soul and career. The other two band members, a testy French guitarist (Francois Civil) and a monosyllabic lady drummer (Carla Azar), watch from the sidelines, as does the group’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), a scruffy lost boy who apparently has done time with Frank in the vales of institutionalization.
Fassbender takes an interesting gamble here. One of our most physically commanding film actors — he has a classic movie star profile and a ferocious air of commitment — he hides his features inside a wide-eyed generic parade head. With airholes. Frank sings in a powerful baritone that calls to mind Ian Curtis, the late Joy Division leader, but when not singing he speaks in shy, sincere tones. Eager to please, he tells the perplexed Jon that he’ll verbalize his facial expressions to make communication easier. (“Welcoming smile,” for instance.) But the head stays on, even in the shower.
The character is based on a true-life rock eccentric named Chris Sievey, a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom, whose 1980s British punk band the Freshies featured a keyboardist, Jon Ronson, who went on to co-write the screenplay for “Frank” with Peter Straughan. (Sievey himself died in 2010.) But “Frank” taps into an entire mythos of damaged pop geniuses, from Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to the schizophrenic Texas troubadour Daniel Johnston. The movie meanders idly through a few worthwhile questions, too. When does the protective adoration of fans and fellow musicians become harmful enablement? Is the romance of the bonkers artist more important than the reality of mental anguish?
“Frank” flirts but doesn’t commit, in part because it never lets us into Frank’s head, figuratively or literally. The band rehearsals are played for whimsical comedy, and the emphasis on the keyboard player’s point of view keeps us on the outside of events. An unexpected invitation to Austin’s SXSW festival — Jon’s video blog of the recording sessions has amassed followers on both sides of the Atlantic — brings the band to the States and the expected collision between the kid’s ambitions (massive success) and the rest of the band’s expectations (let Frank be Frank). Director Leonard Abrahamson lets things fall apart in ways that are amusing but not terribly involving.
Toward the end, we do get to see Frank with the head removed, and the scene is as weirdly touching as the rest of the movie should have been. That’s partly a tribute to Fassbender’s natural charisma even when the actor looks like a shipwreck. It’s also the moment when the darker, more discomfiting themes of “Frank” slip gracefully to the surface, as the title character sings a declaration of love for our unkind world that sticks in both your ear and your heart. “Frank” might be a less cute movie without the mask but it would probably be a better one.