The problem with Frank (Jim Gaffigan) is that little about him is interesting. He finds himself in an precarious situation, one fraught with lies and self-deception, but that alone does not make for a personality. Unlike Being John Malkovich, for example, Being Frank offers little insight into the mind of its hero. Instead, it is closer to a sitcom, the sort of fumbling comedy that was more popular in the nineties and mid-aughts. Its lack of charm might be fascinating, but that would require the film to be worthwhile or have memorable characters. It is rare to see any film this badly miscast.
Being Frank was originally called You Can Choose Your Family, and I am not sure which title is worse. Neither one is accurate or clever, but at least Being Frank rolls off the tongue. The confusion takes a while to set in because Gaffigan’s Frank is referred to as “Dad” for the film’s opening act, and he is not even the main character. That would be Frank’s son Phillip (Logan Miller), a sullen teen who thinks his dad is a real asshole. Through a mix of lies and bad luck, Phillip learns a painful secret: his father has a second family, complete with a second wife and kids. Like any self-respecting teen, Phillip sees this is as an opportunity for blackmail, except the pair soon find themselves as uneasy accomplices.
The exact particulars of the plot are too complex to explain here. They hinge upon Frank’s lies, and how Phillip ingratiates himself into his second family (including his half-sister (Isabelle Phillips) who develops romantic feelings for him). All this would be great material for a farce – the comic timing has the suspense that can recall The Birdcage – but the personalities are not forceful enough to sell the material.
Jim Gaffigan is an everyman actor, and here he is somehow meant to be patriarch to two semi-functional, nice families. Moreover, Anna Gunn and Samantha Mathis – remember her(?) – play his wives, and there is nothing about Gaffigan to suggest he could pull this off. Movies do not need to be airtight, although they do require some suspension of belief. Being Frank asks too much and gives too little, so when a scheme involves Frank’s families in two places at once, it unfolds only out of obligation.
Director Miranda Bailey and screenwriter Glen Lakin are first-time filmmakers, and their approach to storytelling could use some revisions. There is a tonal problem throughout Being Frank: Phillip responds to his father’s double life like an actual teenager, then shifts seamlessly into a comic caricature. Except for the wives – whose POV to this whole endeavor is sorely lacking – every character transitions uneasily from drama to comedy (Alex Karpovsky is one-note as a loser in a mullet, for example). There are frequent one-liners, usually at Frank’s expense, and it is unclear whether they are meant to be funny. Bailey has a gift for understated physical gags, like Gaffigan taking up jogging to cover his tracks, yet they are strangely understated. They don’t need to pull back their punches for a character who is fundamentally an asshole.
The best scene in Being Frank involves Frank teaching Phillip how to lie. It is good advice, although the reasons behind them are terrible. Amid those twisted dynamics, the film shoehorns a coming of age story, some lazy 90s nostalgia, and an incest subplot that is even ickier than it sounds. Comic actors can sometimes shift toward drama, and even Gaffigan has done that in a supporting role with Chappaquiddick. The more challenging trick is to watch a comic actor shift toward a leading man. Being Frank needs an “it” factor to elevate its mediocrity, so instead we are left with a film straining for modest goals it cannot achieve.