Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Film review: 'Gigantic' a sometimes amusing essay in indie quirk

Zooey Deschanel as Happy in Gigantic.

By John Thomason

The minute we hear that Zooey Deschanel’s character in Gigantic is introduced with the name Happy (short for Harriet), our collective bell goes off.

Conditioned by too many quirky independent comedies, the irony of her secretly miserable life has already cemented in our craniums so thoroughly that it can almost no longer apply as irony (Remember the cruelly named Joy Jordan, Jane Adams’ wretched character in Happiness?). Now, if she was named Happy and lived her life like Sally Hawkins’ eternally optimistic Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, that would be something subversive.

Gigantic is a curiously funny/hacky slice of dysfunctional life that wears its quirk-com origins on its sleeve. Paul Dano stars as Brian Weathersby, an amiable mattress salesman who operates out of an austere warehouse and is obsessed with adopting a Chinese baby (quirky!). When a wealthy gasbag (John Goodman) with the look and demeanor of a manatoid mobster in Mark Mothersbaugh glasses (quirkier!) agrees to buy a $45,000 mattress, he sends his daughter Happy to pick up the bed the next day.

She promptly falls asleep on the bed, and in her second meeting with Brian, in the office of her father’s chiropractor, she asks if he has any interest in having sex with her in her dad’s oversized van (quirkiest!). And so it goes – an offbeat romance develops amid Brian’s Chinese babyfever and his clueless father’s (Ed Asner) 80th birthday party.

For first-time indie filmmakers such as Gigantic’s Matt Aselton, quirkiness is an almost essential ingredient in securing a distribution deal. It started when Jim Jarmusch shot Stranger Than Paradise for about $18 and a pack of smokes in 1984 and has survived – even thrived – in the indie world ever since. Recent results range from the distinctly sublime (Me and You and Everyone We Know, Garden State) to the groaningly routine (Little Miss Sunshine) to the Hallmark-gone-arthouse sappy (Waitress) to the patently pretentious (The Darjeeling…yawn…Limited).

What all of these movies share are characters that say and do the darndest things and often seem to be operating on different tracks, even on opposing psychological states. This miscommunication is most endemic within the family, where it’s exploited for comedic gain -- hyper-real projections of real-life familial squabbles that allow us to sit back and laugh, comfortable that at least our relationships aren’t that bad.

Gigantic fits the subgenre’s requirements to a tee. Take, for example, the obligatory Awkward Dinner Scene, in which Happy’s father introduces Brian as “the man who’s sleeping with my daughter,” and Happy fires back with an equally disparaging remark about good ol’ pop.

At least there’s one interaction in the film that’s initially arresting. Brian is assaulted by a grizzled mountain man bearing a club, who beats the young man to a pulp until Brian tells him to stop. Even this intriguing subplot – the man appears periodically, each time with a different weapon – results in a plot twists constituting its own clichéd trope.

The best that can be said in Gigantic’s favor is that Aselton is a gifted humorist, even if the jokes are so proscribed that they hardly have an air of organic spontaneity. He has a keen eye for casting, giving the movie’s weathered lions – Goodman and Asner – the meatiest comic lines. Goodman in particular has rarely been this compelling to watch, obviously enjoying every minute of it.

Whether you share this enjoyment for the movie as a whole depends on your tolerance for excessive quirk and the deepness of your indie-film library – the more Igby Goes Downs you’ve seen, the less likely you are to fall under Gigantic’s tried-and-true formula of randomness.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

GIGANTIC. Studio: First Independent Pictures; Director: Matt Aselton; Cast: Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner and John Goodman; Release date: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse

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