“Frank & Lola” opens by airdropping us directly into the midst of a sex scene between the titular characters. Well, make that a just-about-to-be sex scene, since Frank (Michael Shannon) stops them one thrust short, wondering if maybe he and Lola (Imogen Poots), who he barely knows, should wait. This has nothing to do with abstinence, mind you, because hey, the whole swath of Las Vegas is situated just outside the window of where they are laying and what is Las Vegas if not Sin City? No, it’s more that writer/director Matthew Ross’s film seeks to unmask the way in which such all-consuming passion inevitably yields jealousy and rage, an ancient tale, sure, but a story’s familiarity does not necessarily need to impede its execution because fresh execution can make the ancient feel brand new. Alas, Ross can only manage a few huffs and puffs of freshness before he’s all out of breath, leaving the back half of “Frank & Lola”, and a lot of what leads up to it, feeling mired in a plot that not only feels stale but sadly un-empowering for its principal female character.
There is something to these sorts of stories where romance blooms and then jealousy encroaches on said romance that typically requires a pulling back on the curtain of its characters, setting them up This Way so that they earn our empathy, or thereabouts, before they suddenly careen That Way, everything falling apart. That, however, admirably does not seem of particular interest to Ross, which is partly why he opens the movie when he does. The meet cute, the movie’s most tender moment, arrives in flashback, with Frank, a chef, concocting a culinary thrilling omelet for Lola, with Frank reciting the ingredients within, one of the most un-fraught line readings of Shannon’s career. This moment suggests a desire on Ross’s part to do for food what Luca Guadagnino did for edible delights in “I Am Love” but that sort of sensual parallel never quite emerges. If anything, what is eventually revealed as Frank’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude in the kitchen mimics his my-way-or-the-highway attitude in love.
It’s telling that this omelet-conjuring meet cute happens on Halloween as if it’s all just make believe. Or maybe it’s telling that on Halloween in his restaurant Frank is sporting a chef’s jacket covered in fake blood. As his and Lola’s relationship progresses, he exudes anger and suspicion at anyone he comes across, from Lola’s mother (Rosanna Arquette), whom he observes with a vicious side-eye, to the talkative, connected Keith (Justin Long) who gets Lola a fashion designer gig and who probably does, at least a little, have the hots for her. This, in fact, doubles as the movie’s best and funniest moment, in which Ross renders arguably History’s Greatest Staredown, with a semi-shot reverse shot in which Long’s character disappears from the frame when Shannon is staring at him, as if the stare has rendered him so weak he’s invisible, and then when it flips keeps Shannon in the frame so that he we still see him looming.
Shannon’s overwhelmingly magnetic menace was, I suppose, always bound to eventually go too far, though to be fair, once the jealously kicks in, his character doesn’t have much else going on regarding his relationship with Lola. He’s just…steamed. So Shannon plays him…steamed. And he’s never more steamed at anyone than he is at Alan (Michael Nyqvist), a French lothario who shares a potentially sordid past with Lola.
This leads Frank to finding him, ostensibly to beat his brains in, though it grows both more complicated and not complicated at all, at least for Lola, who is thrust into the background as these two men have long, faux-searching conversations about Lola and squabble and scrap over her, reducing her to an object of lust, which is something that Frank either doesn’t realize or that the movie doesn’t realize in order to make Frank wrestle with. It’s so frustrating that you don’t even want the asinine ambiguity of the final shot – you just want Lola to say “Later” and walk.