'Being Frank' mines cheap laughs from serious family issues
"Being Frank" - ★ ★
You can't choose your family. Or can you?
That's the question raised by "Being Frank," a domestic comedy by Miranda Bailey, whose directing credits include the documentary "The Pathological Optimist" and whose résumé as a producer boasts such quirky indie hits as "Swiss Army Man" and "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." Unfortunately, in the filmmaker's narrative-feature debut, she takes the theme of betrayal and turns it into fodder for a sitcom, and not a particularly funny one at that.
Philip (Logan Miller of "Love Simon") is a high school senior who's just been accepted by New York University, and who is eager to escape his small town. But his father, Frank (comedian and Elgin native Jim Gaffigan), wants him to stay closer to home and attend an in-state school. On top of that, Frank doesn't want his son to attend the lakeside festival where high schoolers gather for spring break.
Frank is an emotionally -- and literally -- distant father, taking frequent work trips in the course of his job as an executive at a ketchup plant (as the film gets underway, he tells his family that he's off to Japan for three weeks). Frustrated, Philip defies his father's wishes and goes to the lake anyway, accompanied by his best friend Lewis (Daniel Rashid). But after hitting on a cute girl named Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), Philip spots Frank nearby. To his horror, he learns that Dad has a second home, a second wife and a second family, and that his crush is his half sister.
What to do after such betrayal? In the absurd world of "Being Frank," the natural response is extortion: Philip promises to keep his father's secret, but only if Dad will send him to NYU.
The game of deception that ensues is one that has fueled comedy for centuries: Frank tries to pass Philip off as the son of his best friend. And Kelly, feeling a connection to Philip, starts to pursue him romantically.
Such entanglements could have been the basis for an awkward black comedy, or maybe even an effective family drama. But the film -- much like its ambivalent protagonist -- never really picks a side, at least not convincingly. In what passes for irony, Frank and Philip actually grow closer as they become co-conspirators, developing a relationship that becomes the film's core strength. Gaffigan and Miller have a nice rapport as their bond develops, but their individual performances aren't strong enough to overcome the film's overall uneven tone.
Originally titled "You Can Choose Your Family," an earlier version of the screenplay (by Glen Lakin) had been set in the present day. But Bailey moved the action to the early 1990s: a time when her own father left her family, as the director explains in the film's press notes. That personal connection to the material comes through only intermittently, in the film's more serious -- and successful -- moments.
The fact that Frank runs a ketchup company turns out to be oddly apt. "Being Frank" feels more like a condiment than a main dish. There might be a decent movie somewhere under all this nonsense, but the cheap laughs overwhelm this "Frank's" more subtle flavors.
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Starring: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Isabelle Phillips, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Daniel Rashid
Directed by: Miranda Bailey
Other: A Film Arcade release. Rated R for language, sexual references and drug use. 110 minutes