Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/26/14 13:45:58

"Much more than just the movie where you don't see Fassbender's face."
5 stars (Awesome)

Not being a drinker, I'm probably appropriating a terrible metaphor here, but this movie strikes me as being like a certain kind of binge: You start out down, but soon the alcohol gets you and everything is crazy and funny and even when somebody clocks you, it doesn't feel like any real damage has been done until the uncomfortable truths start coming out. That's when you realize that the movie you had filed away as "the one where Michael Fassbender wears the papier-maché head" is going to leave you with something to chew on.

It starts with Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), a frustrated songwriter working an office job that bores him, seeing a poster for the band "Soronprfbs", although they look like they're going to cancel their gig in his quiet Welsh town when the keyboardist tries to drown himself. Jon offers his services to their manager Don (Scoot McNairy), and that's where he meets the rest of the band - drummer Nana (Carla Azar), French guitar player Baraque (François Civil), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the theremin, and front man Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his expressionless papier-maché head. That first concert is a disaster, but when Soronprfbs still needs a keyboard player for something in Ireland, he gives Jon a call.

It gets brilliantly absurd from there, because while Frank is an obvious goof on weird, experimental musicians (specifically, writer Jon Robson's friend Frank Sidebottom), it's a good-natured one, with Jon serving as the sort of straight man more prone to be drawn into the weird goings-on than look down upon them. Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan come up with a ton of jokes that go well beyond the innate oddity of Frank's head - an impressive mix of the verbal, visual, and musical, actually - that director Lenny Abrahamson and the cast execute in nearly-perfect fashion. There's a good chance that the audience will be laughing continually enough to miss the setup being done for a darker second half in some of the more pointed gags.

Make no mistake, there are still a lot of funny moments to come after an event that would completely sober some movies up, but the filmmakers do some things that surprise as they move Jon from being a narrator who observes more than he acts. The contrast between the various band members gives the audience a chance to ponder the difference between people who want to make music and those who want to be musicians, and does so while still being very much about Frank, Jon, and the rest as individuals, with a blurrier line between the goals of art, commerce, and fame than is often drawn. Which is good, because they've also got other, heavier concerns to give time to.

Michael Fassbender isn't quite at the center of that movie, but the head makes sure that you can't overlook him in any scene, and he delivers a really tremendous performance. Stripped of one of the most important tools that an actor has, he puts extra expression into his voice, and while it might seem too much without the head, it seems like perfect compensation, as does the way he uses his body language (and the occasional prop) to make this mask less blank than it may seem. Even before certain details are filled in, the audience has a good understanding of Frank: There's this desperate need to be liked along with real difficulty in social interaction outside of making music, and even that is decidedly odd. And, on top of that, he's tremendously funny.

So is Domhnall Gleeson, both as a guy reacting to the insanity around him and one who is crazed on his own. As with Frank, Jon is a trickier role than he initially appears; Gleeson has to be the everyman and never lose that connection with the audience even when it becomes clear that this reflection of normality can actually be a dangerous thing to the more fragile people around him. Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal play characters somewhere in between the two, but both portray the sort of individual instability that fits in as part of the bigger system.

Together, they make a very fine ensemble, eventually doing a lot more than the audience might initially expect from the strange, funny start, but give it a closer look and everything that goes on is seeded from the very start. The filmmakers may be a little heavy-handed in closing the loop, but it's okay; the movie has earned the chance to tie things together in such a haphazard but earnest way.

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