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If a particularly salacious episode of Maury somehow got crossed with a cheesy family sitcom, it might feel something like Being Frank. The film stars comedian and sitcom actor Jim Gaffigan as a middle-aged schlub who has been living a secret life with a second family for two decades. It’s a complex and intriguing situation that has never gotten a proper big-screen treatment. Despite some big laughs and a promising performance by Gaffigan, this ain’t it.

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Watching Being Frank, you can feel two films fighting for dominance. One is a rich, earnest drama about the relationship between a teenage boy and a father who is at once full of shit and deeply human. When Philip (Logan Miller) discovers that his overbearing father Frank (Gaffigan) has been carrying on with another family, it unleashes a cascade of epiphanies. There is the basic feeling of betrayal, the pangs of injustice at learning that Frank treats his other son (Gage Banister) better than him, and a cathartic release from watching his father fall from his very, very high horse. 

Philip discovers the ruse when he steals away from home to go to a nearby lake community for spring break, and, instead of running home to tell his mother (Anna Gunn), he infiltrates the second family, pretending to be the son of a friend of Frank’s, and starts to torture his father with the threat of revealing his secret. The screenplay by Glen Lakin cooks up some comic contrivances—like when Frank employs a local stoner (Alex Karpovsky) to play his son’s fake dad—while the bouncy score composed by Craig Richey tries with great effort to lighten the mood.

Neither approach is totally successful. There is a winning moment halfway through when Frank tries to defend himself, explaining how he thought he was doing the right thing by both his families. Gaffigan acquits himself well here with the same easy, deadpan charm that has made him a star elsewhere. It’s even believable when Philip comes around and starts trying to help his father keep up the subterfuge. That these oft-ludicrous character choices seem at all believable is due to near heroic work by Gaffigan and Miller, whose strange chemistry—they seem more like peers—is attuned to their odd circumstance.

But just as quickly as it touches on something tender and honest, the film skitters off down less interesting avenues. People hide behind furniture and get hit in the head with footballs. A character we barely get to know is revealed to be gay, and it’s supposed to mean something to us. The film even threatens us with incest, as Philip and his half-sister (Isabelle Phillips), who still thinks he’s the son of a family friend, get dangerously close with one another. Using potential inbreeding for comic tension has rarely been attempted in film, and with good reason.

For first-time feature director Miranda Bailey (already an accomplished indie producer), it counts as a bold and ambitious undertaking whose reach exceeds its grasp. The film juggles about a half dozen tones and manages to keep them all in the air at once, but not all of them are worthy of our focus. Framing a professional philanderer as a goofy sitcom dad is deeply gross, and casting an actual sitcom dad in the lead heightens the disgust level. Being Frank works so hard to make its male abuser sympathetic, while virtually ignoring the inner lives of the women unfortunate enough to be in his path, that each moment of empathy feels unearned and every laugh regrettable.

Being Frank opens Friday at Bethesda Row Cinema.