Car movies, like any other film genre such as thrillers and comedies, can be grouped into various subgenres.
There’s the coast-to-coast road race films like The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run, the cops versus hero chase movies à la Vanishing Point and Smokey and the Bandit, the car theft dramas as exemplified by Gone in 60 Seconds and Grand Theft Auto, and so on.
Recently, while browsing online for car movies to review for you all, I stumbled upon a newly-released film whose description suggested to me that it might not fall into any existing sub-category.
Intrigued, I gave it a watch, and was quite honestly stunned by its genre-defying qualities. What’s more, it features one hell of a cool hero car, making it a no brainer to cover in this month’s edition of Rob’s Car Movie Review.
So, allow me to present to you my take on 2022’s Frank & Penelope!
Frank & Penelope was produced by Dolezal Pictures and Redbud Studios, and released by the latter in 2022. Known mostly as an actor, Sean Patrick Flannery wrote and directed the film, and also has a small role in it.
Starring in the movie is Billy Budinich as Frank, Caylee Cowan as Penelope, and Kevin Dillon, Donna D’Errico, Johnathon Schaech, Lin Shaye and Brian Maillard rounding out the ensemble.
The film concerns a down-on-his-luck man, Frank, who is stuck in a job he hates and plagued by the day-in-day-out repetition of his life. One day, returning home from work, he discovers his wife in flagrante delicto with another man. Devastated, he goes to a nearby strip club to drown his sorrows with a bottle of bourbon. There, he meets Penelope, a stunning young exotic dancer with a predilection for spotting men down on their luck to make into easy marks.
Drunk, and desperate for the attentions of a nubile, young woman, Frank ignores the obvious red flags in regards to Penelope’s intentions, and allows himself to be seduced by her. A violent argument between Penelope and the club manager though sees Frank save her and a bond form between the two.
Together Frank and Penelope hit the roads of Texas with no destination in mind, both eager to shed their former skins and create a new, exciting, unbounded life. Their travels lead them to check into a dingy roadside motel in a town called Quicksilver, where unbeknownst to them, they become the target of a “sin eater” death cult and its charismatic leader, Chisos, who run the community.
After Penelope is kidnapped by the cult, Frank must transform himself from meek office drone into a true hero and save his girl.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “so what is so different about that? I’ve seen this before in everything from Wild at Heart to From Dusk Till Dawn.” I’d be the first to concur with you, as the story of misfits hitting the road and being transformed by their experiences clearly isn’t the most unexplored of narratives.
The answer is that Frank & Penelope presents its plot in a very unusual manner. Borrowing perhaps a bit from David Lynch’s 1990 thriller, Wild at Heart, the movie’s spatial and temporal qualities are heavily manipulated by virtue of performance, editing, location, wardrobe, and props, so that the film seems to transcend time and setting.
Firmly rooted in the present day at the beginning of the film, as the events carry Frank further and further away from his former dysfunctional life, the look of his world begins to slip back in time to a simpler era. Instead of acting and dressing like a buttoned-up corporate worker of the 21st century, Frank begins to resemble a James Dean or Elvis Presley type figure, his hair suddenly greased into a pompadour, and the sleeves of his white t-shirt rolled up.
Likewise, the current day architecture and setting of Frank’s home soon gives way to the sun – and weather-beaten 1940s style dwellings of Quicksilver, further enhancing the feeling of time shifting within the movie.
Even the style of dialogue and the words he uses shift from modern day movie vernacular, to that of people in the films of the 1950s and ‘60s – highly dramatic, flowery and over-the-top.
The catalyst of this shift is Penelope. Frank is instantly drawn into her world of romantic daydreams and hushed words delivered in a dreamy southern drawl. As soon as he meets her, the present begins to slip into the past. It’s a subtle transformation, but one that adds to the surreal nature of the film’s atmosphere.
But where the film succeeds in terms of aesthetic and tonal qualities, other aspects fall short.
While the plot defies genre-typing by utilizing elements from horror, heist, thriller and road movies, the writing itself is fairly pedestrian as a whole, with nothing happening that you haven’t seen before, and the dialogue failing to produce anything memorable. The pacing is also a bit off, as there are fairly long sequences where you find yourself saying, “c’mon, let’s get on with it.”
What’s more, while the set dressers and prop masters did an admirable job in “putting the money on the screen” by adorning the milieu of the movie, there is nevertheless an overriding, low budget, B-movie feel to the proceedings.
Two elements save the movie from oblivion, though.
The first is Caylee Cowen, who is positively fantastic as Penelope, injecting the role with equal parts seductress and naïve unsophisticate. And while some may note that her portrayal may have taken more than a smidge from Patricia Arquette’s Alabama Whitman in True Romance, she no doubt possesses an unusual talent and charisma.
The second element which keeps Frank & Penelope afloat are the cars, particularly the one that Frank trades his staid Prius hybrid in for just as his, and the film’s, time shift begins – a glorious, boat-sized 1968 Dodge Super Bee R/T.
Draped in FF-1 Light green metallic paint with black Super Bee stripes and logo over a black interior, the car is simply gorgeous and looks every bit the car you’d want to road trip across Texas in.
Released by Dodge in 1968 after the success of Plymouth’s Road Runner, the Super Bee was essentially a low-cost, high performance, stripped down version of Dodge’s Coronet. Offered with either Chrysler’s ubiquitous 335 horsepower 383 Magnum V8 with heads, camshaft, and induction system borrowed from the larger 440 Magnum V8, or, for a substantial upcharge, the 426 Hemi “Elephant Motor,” the Super Bee included heavy-duty suspension, a 3-speed TorqueFlite or A833 4-speed manual, high performance tires and a host of trim additions and subtractions to differentiate it from the Coronet.
Frank’s ‘Bee is shown to have the auto slushbox, and although we never get a look under the hood, it must be assumed the car packs the 383, since only 125 Hemi cars were ever produced, and are now far too valuable for anyone to loan out to a movie. The 383 nonetheless sounds awesome in the movie and provides for a number of serious burnouts of the rear rubber.
Although the car pretty much steals the movie for me, one shot revealed that all might not have been as it seemed. In one sequence, we see the car’s speedometer needle climbing high, and I noticed that the horizontal gauge wasn’t what Super Bees, which borrowed the Rallye gauge cluster from its Charger stablemate, should be equipped with. Either the Super Bee in the film was restored incorrectly, or the movie car was in fact a run-of-the-mill Coronet dressed up like a ‘Bee. I couldn’t find any info on this, so the answer remains an enigma.
Another fabulous muscle car that makes an appearance in the film is a 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS coupe, owned by the the manager of the strip club that Penelope worked at. The car is black with white stripes, and although it only makes a brief appearance in the film, makes quite an impression, as all 1970 Chevelles do.
The last car of note in the movie is Chisos’ 1966 Cadillac El Dorado. Seemingly a mile long, this white beauty is festooned with all the chrome and splash that a Caddy of this era should. Quite a sweet boulevard cruiser.
In the end, Frank & Penelope is only a semi-successful effort. While as a student of film, I greatly appreciated the unique conceptual and aesthetic facets of the picture, I found the story derivative and the pacing slow. It was way more interesting as an abstract piece of work than it was enjoyable as a movie. As a result, I can only give the movie five-and-a-half out of ten pistons, and suggest it be visited primarily by other film students, and, of course, rabid Mopar fans.