BEING FRANK – Review
In their near never-ending quest for box office gold Hollywood studios (in this case we’re talking about an “indie” upstart), another stand-up comedian is plucked from the clubs (in this case it’s arenas and stadiums) and plunked in front of a motion picture camera. That was the case of vaudeville and nightclub stars back in the “golden age”, but the idea of fashioning a flick around a comic’s “schtick’ really took flight forty years ago with Steve Martin as THE JERK. He became an enduring movie star, much like Rodney Dangerfield and later Tim Allen. A more recent example would be Amy Schumer breaking through with TRAINWRECK, though her follow-up flicks have struggled at the multiplex. Now comes a (hope to be) quirky lil’ low budget flick that stars a comedian who has certainly “paid his dues” over the last 22 years, bouncing between TV shows and supporting film roles. But he’s in the lead this time in a project that exploits the “family man” themes of his more popular stand-up bits (well, it would be hard to make “Hot Pockets: The Movie”). Yes, Jim Gaffigan is BEING FRANK.
That Frank (Gaffigan) in question isn’t a “fun” guy. When he’s not rushing off to an overseas business trip, Frank’s squelching the dreams of his eighteen-year-old son Phillip (Logan Miller). While his kid sister Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander) adores her daddy, long-suffering, over-worked, under-appreciated mom Laura (Anna Gunn) just tries to keep things peaceful during the latest battle of wills between father and son. Phillip has been accepted to NYU, but Frank insists that he’ll go to the local state college. When Frank leaves for his latest “trip”, Laura and Lib decide to take a trip themselves, with Phillip promising to join them after he studies with his BFF. Instead, he and pal Lewis (Daniel Rashid) drive to a lakeside town an hour or so away, since Lewis’ uncle Ross is away they’ll crash at his pad. Surprise, stoner Ross (Alex Karpovsky) is still there. But a much bigger surprise awaits them when they hang out at the public pool. Phillip sees Frank there! He observes his pop giving a warm hug to the cute snack shop waitress. Keeping out of sight, Phillip has Lewis, who owns the wheels, follow Frank. The guys are shocked when Frank and the girl enter a house were Frank kisses a more age appropriate woman. And then he hugs a teenage boy who is around Phillip’s age. Could the extended business treks be a way for Frank to visit his “other family”? The one with second mom Bonnie (Samantha Mathis), free-spirited daughter Kelly (Isabelle Phillips) and jock son Eddie (Gage Banister), where Frank is a “fun guy”. Phillip quickly hatches a plan. While Frank is out, he shows up at the house introducing himself as the son of one of Frank’s co-workers. This way his pop will foot the bill for NYU to ensure his secret is kept (what’s a little blackmail between family). Can he possibly pull this off? Caution: wacky hijinks ahead!
Gaffigan certainly has the acting skills to carry a film, though his considerable talents can’t make the abrasive Frank a hero worthy of having the audience in his “corner”. We believe him to be a soul-crushing prig in the opening scenes (with “fam #1”), so we buy into Phillip’s shock when he (and we) see him as the “laid back” nurturing papa (with fam #2). Gaffigan delivers a few chuckles as the “flop sweat” pours when his secret is discovered, and his eyes show us that his brain is in “hyperdrive’ as he scrambles to deal with a new threat that may involve his “lives” colliding. It’s just that the big laugh ‘payoff’ isn’t there, despite Gaffigan’s energetic efforts, since this type of comic panic has been such a film and TV (sitcom) staple. Miller nails the frustrated anger of Phillip, particularly in the first act, and we can buy him as an opportunist who’ll make his pop foot the college bill or be busted. But his envy of “fam #2” (particularly Eddie) doesn’t jibe with his sudden turnaround into Frank’s enabler/partner in deceit, which isn’t helped by Miller’s more snarky, “eye-rolling” line delivery. The pairing just falls flat. The actresses don’t fare much better, though the two “Mrs. Franks” have distinct separate personas. Gunn’s Laura suppresses her bubbling frustrations as the constant servant/ negotiator of fam #1. While Mathis (who has eased gracefully from her 80s and 90s “teen queen” roles) is the more ethereal, “Earth mother”, welcoming Phillip as she pursues her “art” (countless canvases of the same nearby house). And making a strong impression is Phillips as the black-haired (a bit goth and a tad punk) smart and mellow siren Kelly who becomes a best ‘bud’ to Phillip while igniting incest anxiety in Frank.
First-time narrative feature director Miranda Bailey makes an effort to give them film a light tone, going for “family farce” rather than “bigamist tragedy”, but the often sophomoric script from Glen Lakin thwarts her at nearly every turn. The trite stoner antics of Uncle Ross just seem to bring everything to a dead halt as he drifts through his mental fog. And why the 1992 setting? Maybe the thought is that Frank could pull this off during a fairly pre-digital time (few cell phones and no quick internet access). Then there’s the sexual “coming out” of pal Lewis which pops up out of the blue in the third act, perhaps in hopes of surprising us enough to be invested in the meandering story. Nothing really happens with Phillip’s long-time lust for a schoolmate, while the tentative romance between him and Kelly is an uncomfortable way to wring laughs from Frank’s ever-increasing mania. Oh, and his confession to his son about his decision to lead a double life just distances us even more from the selfish manipulator. That’s an attempt at empathy and pathos that totally backfires. The lakeside locales are pretty lovely, but they’re not enough to make this nearly laugh-free flick compelling. Gaffigan and his castmates deserve better than BEING FRANK, frankly.
One Out of Four Stars
BEING FRANK opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas