Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
United Kingdom/Ireland, 2014. Element Pictures, Runaway Fridge Productions, Film4, Indieproduction, Reel Chefs Catering. Screenplay by Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan. Cinematography by James Mather. Produced by David Barron, Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe. Music by Stephen Rennicks. Production Design by Richard Bullock. Costume Design by Suzie Harman. Film Editing by Nathan Nugent. Las Vegas Film Critics 2014.
Domhnall Gleeson works a day job and tries to compose songs at night, struggling for inspiration but keeping up the pretense on social media that he is “living the dream”. A random encounter with a touring band gets him much closer to his ambition when the group’s keyboard player is taken to the hospital after a nervous breakdown and a position is offered to him as replacement. Gleeson is taken to a cabin in the woods where he will work on the band’s new album, but things are off to an incredibly rocky start with this odd collection of characters: band manager Scoot McNairy never seems to have a handle on the business side of the business, musician Maggie Gyllenhaal spews venom on the newcomer from their first meeting and never lets up, while musicians François Civil and Carla Azar insult him in French to his face and never bother to get to know their new player. At the centre of it all, however, is the group’s greatest enigma, the lead singer of the band (Michael Fassbender) who spends day and night with his head encased in a giant balloon-like mask that he never removes. Fassbender’s behavior is unreliable and erratic, constantly encouraging musical experimentation among the members while spending week after week without ever recording a single note. As the money runs out and emotions spiral out of control, Gleeson starts to wonder if this band of outsiders, in whom he has invested his own cash, is actually headed by a unique genius or a man with emotional problems. Rather than look into it, however, he pumps up their visibility on YouTube and gets them a gig performing at South By Southwest, which he thinks will be their ticket to fame despite the fact that they are so obviously headed for disaster. What should be a contagiously fun exploration of these misfits is often an unpleasant indulgence in distaff characters and their unkind behavior. Director Lenny Abrahamson wants to avoid sugarcoating the issues involved (like the presence of severe mental illness) but rather than keeping a respectful distance from his characters’ problems, his remove feels more like personal distaste than any sense of ironic propriety. Not helping matters is an unheroic protagonist who is more masochistic than sacrificing, even the weakest person in the world would at some point object to the mean stupidity of the obnoxious Gyllenhaal, who means to be challenging but is just a bully without justification. At some point the cruelty gets to be too much, and the suffering of characters trying to get somewhere in a world that is just too big and mean for them is told with far too little sympathy to be bearable. That said, Fassbender proves to be charismatic even without showing his face, and the concluding musical number is terrific.