Many of cinema’s most divisive filmmakers are accused of betraying the story they’re trying to tell by utilizing various stylistic affectations. Of course, this is true of all forms of art; those who choose to break away from established formula are often ridiculed for doing so. Wes Anderson, whose work includes Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, has suffered much scrutiny for eschewing traditional behaviors and establishing a wholly unique film grammar. His intellectually verbose and stoical comedies are beloved by many and reviled in equal measure. Perhaps what infuriates his detractors even more than Anderson’s own work is the work of others that he inspires. A torrent of films over the past decade have been labeled, sometimes hastily, often appropriately, as “Anderson knock-offs.” However, this director is only one of the influential figures in this “quirky new wave” movement. Before Anderson, Hal Ashby was churning out similarly deadpan comedies such as Harold And Maude and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World has certainly influenced this decade since its release back in 2000, resulting in films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. Both were Best Picture nominees thanks in no small part to their quirky characters and thesaurus-ready dialogue, tactics that are beginning to suffer the effects of over-exposure.
There’s something different about Matt Aselton’s left-of-center romancer, Gigantic. Here’s a film that had its premiere at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, as opposed to the usual spawning ground of the “little-movie-that-could”– Sundance. And, in a sense, I can see why: Aselton’s debut may look like an indie comedy, it may sound like your typical “Anderson knock-off” in its half-mumbled, deadpan delivery, but there’s a tonality at work here that feels unfamiliar to me and, dare I say, fresh? For one, Gigantic could only be cursorily described as “funny”; the laughs are sparse, and usually followed by uncomfortable silences or, on occasion, jarring acts of violence. The hallmarks of a typical, quirky comedy are mostly in place: lots of oddball characters; requisite witty dialogue; and an awkward, young-love relationship at the center which also serves as the film’s chief redeeming quality.
Aselton’s film is set in New York City, and stars Paul Dano — who also Executive Produced Gigantic — as 28-year-old mattress salesman Brian Weathersby, who aspires to one day adopt a baby from China, a dream he’s had since he was eight years old. Brian’s a very introverted character — his demeanor is the exact opposite of the fire-and-brimstone preacher Dano played in There Will Be Blood, and yet more personable than Dano’s Nietzsche-loving mute from Little Miss Sunshine. This is an actor who has proved a willingness to embrace eccentric, moody roles, dating back to his superlative work as a young boy in Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E., and in Michael Hoffman’s The Emperor’s Club. Brian at first appears to be the most even-tempered character Dano has ever given us, but there are undercurrents here that hint at discontentedness.
Playing opposite Dano, and as the love interest of the film, Zooey Deschanel seemingly represents the antithesis to her co-star’s sad-sack outlook. Her character, Harriet “Happy” Lolly, is introduced as free-spirited, forward, and impulsive, but her given name is actually more ironic than appropriate, as there are undercurrents here as well. Still, it’s unsurprising — and probably heavy-handed — that Happy’s effect on Brian’s life is an eye-opening one, introducing him to a world of indulgent human pleasures.
The catalyst of this romantic meeting is the sale of an expensive Swedish mattress, procured by Happy’s robust and blustery father, Al Lolly (John Goodman), from Brian’s workplace. Al sends his spacey daughter to pay for the mattress, and thus she and Brian meet, immediately forming a bond when Brian allows Happy to nap in the store for a while, tenderly covering her with a blanket. The scene is quirky without being too cutesy, which is commendable for this genre. Their romance evolves from here, as Deschanel treads territory similar to that of her work in David Gordon Green’s romantic indie, All the Real Girls. (Though one could classify Happy’s coyly spoken “Would you like to have sex with me?” as being more idealistic than realistic.) In any event, it’s the chemistry — no, the relatable awkwardness of this relationship that becomes the film’s saving grace, and affords Gigantic pardon for traversing familiar territory, especially when the inevitable “conflict” arises and predictably tears the couple apart.
Also interesting, though far less effective (and admittedly more curious than successful), are the many subplots that broaden the narrative scope of Aselton’s very strange film. Goodman could play sarcastic, bourgeois Al Lolly in his sleep, but a running gag concerning the character’s back problem — and a particularly riotous exchange between him and his chiropractor — provides the film with some much-needed color, as does Brian’s senile, shroom-popping father, played by Ed Asner (soon to be seen in Pixar’s Up), and Jane Alexander as Brian’s mom, who delivers the film’s knock-out line: “nothing’s fucked up, nothing’s beyond repair.” Clearly, the most noteworthy diversion is that of a surrealistic device in the form of a mysterious and hostile homeless man. Played by increasingly-visible comedian Zach Galifianakis, “Homeless Guy” (as the cast list designates) is psychopathic in his relentless pursuit of Brian, attacking him with a metal pipe on the street, with a gun in the woods, and looming in the periphery on several occasions. It’s difficult to detail this particular element of the film without spoiling things, but it also doesn’t entirely work.
Gigantic is an oddity: tonally inconsistent, thematically vague, intermittently entertaining, and even occasionally touching. It’s a relationship movie, a romantic comedy, with elements of a horror/thriller, and traces of poignant, convincing drama. Its title continues to baffle. Does it refer to Brian’s adopted child’s enormous head (which fills the film’s final frame), to John Goodman’s bulbous character, or to a bear-chested whale of a man who appears mysteriously atop a building at one point? More likely, it means to evoke the huge problems which confront us throughout life, often soothed by the companionship of another. The love we find can be just such a “gigantic” presence and can eclipse the burdensome troubles we cope with. The film’s apparent flaws can be ignored, since its impact is undeniable. This is especially true during the final sequence, which has a communal and familial catharsis that approaches that of last year’s Rachel Getting Married in its emphasis on the importance of caring for others. Matt Aselton’s debut feature inarguably draws influence from similar quirky fare, but rather than copy-cat like so many other filmmakers, the director, in an admittedly messy and erratic way, seems to be making noticeable strides, breaking with formula in ways that are somewhat bizarre and bold. For this particular genre to give us a work like Gigantic, I count my blessings.