Lies cause pain. They’re also nearly always discovered. In film, lies are sources of either comedy or drama, depending on the story being told. In “Being Frank,” not only is a lie used to both comedic and dramatic effect, but it’s also equally effective in doing so. Armed with a quietly evocative 1990’s setting, strong work from Jim Gaffigan, and an acknowledgment that characters meant to be cared about are objectively bad people, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. What could have been either a silly comedy or a depressing drama finds a way to thread the genre needle with aplomb.
“Being Frank” finds a deft way to combine comedy and drama, without ever shortchanging one or the other. Individual scenes or characters may grate, but the flow of the work, on the whole, is impressively handled by director Miranda Bailey. At the center is Gaffigan, asked to do more than he’s ever done in a role before. It’s to his credit, and the film’s, that he embraces it and turns in some of 2019’s best work.
Phillip (Logan Miller) is convinced his father hates him. Frank (Gaffigan) never praises him or allows him to do anything fun. He even makes him do a mock interview for a job at the factory Frank literally runs. Kinder to his wife (Anna Gunn) and younger daughter Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander) Frank is undeniably hard on Phillip. Forbidding him from going on Spring Break, Frank sets off on another of his endless business trips to Japan. This time, however, Phillip rebels. Along with his best friend Lewis (Daniel Rashid), Phillip heads to a lakeside town from his childhood. There, he and Lewis stay with the latter’s pothead uncle Ross (Alex Karpovsky). Their plan to just relax and let loose is ruined almost immediately, as Phillip spies Frank at the pool. However, instead of being there to confront his son, he’s there to see a teenage girl. They follow him back to a home, where a revelation is made: he has a second family.
Frank has another wife (Samantha Mathis), along with two children. There’s another son in Eddie (Gage Polchlopek), as well as a daughter in Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), the girl he met at the pool. With the ruse now discovered by Phillip, he confronts his father, under the guise of being the son of his always unseen best friend. It turns out, he’s used this imaginary friend with both of his families to hide his deceit. Initially furious with Frank, Phillip begins to get to know his half-siblings, slowly coming to hear Frank’s side of the story as well. When the two families run the risk of meeting, lies become the one thing that the father has effectively passed down to his son.
Set in the early 1990s, that period decision pays dividends for the film. Not only does it take place at a time when the internet was not ubiquitous yet, allowing deception to succeed, it also colors the world. The grunge look is seen as modern by kids but a filthy rebellion by adults. Conversations about Bill Clinton and his early sexual indiscretions are casually had by parents. The movie features a world just ever so slightly removed from technology. Beyond making “Being Frank” a period piece, it’s turned into a moment in time where families had to talk.
Jim Gaffigan has never been better than he is here in “Being Frank.” What starts out as a bleary one-note performance evolves into something complex and fascinating. Gaffigan clearly is at home with the comedic moments his character receives, though when he veers into dramatic territory, it’s a real revelation. Logan Miller is solid as well, though there’s less emotion here and more reaction from him. They do, however, have a few wonderful scenes together. There, father and son finally begin to see each other for who they really are. There’s real dramatic heft there.
The rest of the cast is underserved, to one degree or another. The wives both have vague subplots hinted at but never fully explored, while the other siblings are mostly meant to showcase how Frank treats each side differently. Anna Gunn and Samantha Mathis do what they can to breathe life into underwritten roles, but it only goes so far. Among the kids, only Isabelle Phillips leaves an impression, though when the story requires her to develop attractions to Phillip, that does no one any good. Then, the less said about Alex Karpovsky’s broad and irritating turn, the better. Nothing about his part works here. None of them come close to Gaffigan’s work in the movie.
Director Miranda Bailey shows an excellent feel for filmmaking with her debut behind the camera. Taking the script by Glen Lakin, she is at her best when the focus is on Frank and Phillip. If there’s a misstep, it’s when she involves Ross in the lies during the third act. It becomes overly complicated and strips away some of the family dynamics that have become part and parcel of the story. Bailey and Lakin would have been better served not focusing as much on race to keep the deception from being discovered. All of the best moments here are centered on why someone makes these decisions, not how they’re made. In fact, there are bold decisions by Bailey and Lakin about where to leave the characters at the end. A clean ending, this is not.
Something that Bailey and Lakin handle quite well here is that Frank earns your sympathy while never deserving forgiveness. Gaffigan conveys that wonderfully. Miller’s Phillip comes around to aid Frank in keeping the ruse alive, but it’s more about finally bonding with his father than agreeing with his cause. The film is primarily concerned with how a family can always be learning about its members. In this case, much of the revelations on hand are bad, even if they’re all done with love in mind. Bailey and Lakin never seek to simplify that complicated feeling. They instead let it remain messy, even at the film’s conclusion.
“Being Frank” walks a very fine line. Occasionally it stumbles, but it manages to get across the finish line with equal amounts of comedy and drama to its credit. Plus, there are no simple answers to the questions it posits, rare for a dramedy of this ilk. Jim Gaffigan fans will see him in a whole new light, as this is excellent work. Look for more dramatic heft from him, going forward. Director Bailey should easily see another project in her directing future after this one, as well. Hitting right in the midst of summer blockbuster season, it’s a solidly made bit of counter-programming.