“Uncle Frank”‘s ’70s setting matches its tiresome themes

Uncle Frank Paul Bettany & Sophia Lillis in Uncle Frank (Amazon Studios)

Paul Bettany is fantastic in the title role, and about the only thing worth watching in Amazon’s interminable family drama.

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With its suh-thern setting, beeswax-coated frames and plucky protagonist, Uncle Frank quickly had me worried it would follow in the footsteps of another 2020 Amazon release, the horrendous Troop Zero. Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) doesn’t feel at home with most of her family members – except her father’s older brother, the titular Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). A professor at NYU, he’s Beth’s only way out of Creekville, South Carolina, as she eventually leaves behind her parents (Steve Zahn and Judy Greer) and heads to college in the big city. 

New York City in 1973 is bustling, and Beth certainly learns a thing or two. Frank hasn’t been hiding any girlfriends from his family – he’s in a loving, committed relationship with a man named Wally (Peter Macdissi). The script, from writer/director Alan Ball (American Beauty) takes a sharp turn, as Frank’s estranged father (Stephen Root) suffers a heart attack. After some protest, Beth’s uncle agrees to road-trip home with her for the funeral.  

The very premise is counter-intuitive: Beth’s less of a character and more of a framing device for Frank. This isn’t her story, so it’s frustrating when Ball wastes so much of the first act trying to convince you otherwise. Instead, the film aims for the eldest Bledsoe’s trauma, fishing around in his head for the remaining hour-and-fifteen minutes. Will he come out to his family? Will they accept him if he does? These questions may have been the basis for groundbreaking drama thirty years ago – Uncle Frank doesn’t do enough to elevate its outdated material. 

But Bettany does what he can, turning in a nuanced – and frankly superb – central performance. He’s able to find a clear and coherent individual, even as Frank code-switches constantly. Bettany’s a loving spouse, a traumatized addict, and a cool intellectual, all at the same time – he doesn’t turn Frank into a mess of contradictions, but a well-realized guy, just trying to get by. Even as the character struggles to reconcile himself, the actor always maintains a mastery over the Frank’s psychology, finding a way around every challenge Ball and the script throw his way. 

These questions may have been the basis for groundbreaking drama thirty years ago – Uncle Frank doesn’t do enough to elevate its outdated material. 

Nobody else fares as well. Ball assembles a bevy of great supporting actors – including Greer, Zahn, Root, and Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother – but the filmmaker leans on his cast too hard. Ball seems to bank on his talented ensemble bringing these characters to life, but he doesn’t give anyone enough to work with. Greer’s a country mouse, Zahn’s a bigot, Martindale’s a saint, you get the idea. If Uncle Frank is the story of a man forced to reconnect with his family, it’d be nice if his family were made up of human beings. 

Flashbacks to Frank’s relationship with his father are even worse, tried and trite images that end in the type of tragedy you’ve already seen in another movie. To be clear, this isn’t a worthless bomb, far more forgettable than offensive. But if dramas for adults like Uncle Frank are going to survive post-pandemic – and I hope they do – they’re going to need to offer more than just one good performance. 

Uncle Frank is now available on Amazon Prime

Uncle Frank Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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