Reviewed at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival
There’s something crushingly depressing about watching a great performer trapped in a mediocre movie, giving their very best to kick some energy or spark into a narrative that is falling apart before our very eyes. Frankie Go Boom doesn’t stop with this sad sight; not only is Lizzy Caplan trying her heart out every time she comes on screen, but the picture actually supplies here with an intriguing character—and then lets her go to waste. Hey, I like this girl, one might think in the opening scenes. Wonder what they’re gonna do with her? Not much, come to find out.
It’s not really her movie anyway—she’s just the best thing in it, is all. The film itself is another tale of overgrown sibling rivalry (which is not proving an especially fertile topic at SXSW this year), this time between Frank (Charlie Hunnam, from Undeclared) and Bruce (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids). The picture opens with a home movie of their childhood, with little Bruce pulling a mean prank on Frankie and filming it; that (and many other things) hasn’t changed in the ensuing years. Four years previous, Frank made an unfortunate discovery on his wedding day—at the alter, in fact—resulting in an ugly scene captured on the wedding video, which Bruce put online (where of course it went viral).
“You’re not still mad about that, are you?” Bruce asks. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since; Frank went out to live in a trailer in Death Valley and avoid anyone with an Internet connection, while Bruce proceeded to destroy his relationships with the rest of the family (mostly by stealing things and selling them for drugs). Their reunion is prompted by Bruce completing his rehab program, but the peace doesn’t last long (a few minutes, really), and as Bruce is storming out, Ms. Caplan makes a most memorable entrance by crashing into Frank drunkenly on her bicycle, without much in the way of clothing under her trenchcoat.
Her character, Lassie (it’s never explained), is fleeing a heartbreak, and she throws herself at Frank with a force and directness that he’s not quite prepared for. The combination of that and his unfortunate recent romantic history leads to some, er, performance anxiety, and weird, awkward, funny, and eventually sexy two-scene follows.
At this point, we can sketch out the rest of the tale without hurting much of anything, intellect-wise—Frankie will fall for Lassie, but bad seed Bruce will find a way to screw it all up for his brother by embarrassing or contaminating him, and trouble will ensue on the way to an eventual happy fade-out. And how does Bruce screw it up? By clandestinely videotaping their encounter, creating a not-quite-sex tape that Frank must then keep from making him an Internet celebrity again. Okay, I guess that’s one way to go.
I feel like anytime I pan a raunchy comedy, I must go out of my way to explain that it’s not that I’m some kind of prude, etc. etc. And I’m not—it’s not that Frankie Go Boom is unfunny because it’s a little raw, it’s that it’s unfunny because it’s only raw. Too often, writer/director Jordan Roberts will create a potentially funny and/or dirty situation, and put it up on screen—but that’s all he does. He merely presents the material without putting any kind of a comic spin on it, and when you do that, you end up with a bunch of cheap, easy jokes and scenes that smack of laziness. Anybody can be dirty. What’s hard is to be dirty and funny. Most people just go for the shock laugh. (And speaking of shock laughs: did I mention this movie features Ron Perlman in drag?)
Both Irish O’Dowd and British Hunnam are working without the benefit of their native accents here, and O’Dowd fares far better; Hunnam spends most of the movie trying to keep his voice in check, and has particular trouble in the scenes where he’s worked up (in other words, roughly the second half of the picture). But dialect trouble or no, O’Dowd confirms himself (after Bridesmaids and Friends with Kids) a reliable comic presence, Perlman earns a few laughs and a bit of audience affection, and Nora Dunn, reliably, is funny pretty much every time she says much of anything. And then there’s Ms. Caplan, who is simply terrific—she’s dizzy and likable, and we always believe her, even when we believe nothing around her. One of these days, poor Lizzy’s gonna find a leading role worthy of her talent. I can feel it.