Matt Aselton's debut feature, Gigantic doesn't officially qualify as a mumblecore movie according to David Denby's recent definition in the New Yorker, but it comes pretty damn close. Its main characters are young, "intermittently employed," and fall into bed (or into the back seat) after an awkward flirtation. Brian (Paul Dano) lives in "moderately hip poverty" and isn't particularly driven in the career department. He is only slightly articulate when describing his emotions, which range from somewhat beleaguered to slightly overwhelmed.
Brian is the youngest son of bohemian parents (Ed Asner and Jane Alexander). He was a surprise, coming late in the couple's married life after their two older boys had already grown up and left the nest. His elder brothers both have successful careers, but Brian flounders, selling upscale Swedish mattresses from a stripped down warehouse in Manhattan. His life's wish is to adopt a baby girl from China. After a family trip ferreting out psychedelic mushrooms in the woods (who does that?), Brian's father recounts his son's eighth birthday, which ended in disappointment after the boy received a tricked out bicycle instead of said baby. It seems Brian has wanted a Chinese daughter for as long as anyone can remember.
The Zooey Deschanel part -- the quirky, free-spirited, impulsive, wild-but-sensitive, obviously manic, maybe even bi-polar girlfriend, Harriet (Happy) Lolly -- is played by Zooey Deschanel. Brian and Happy meet after Happy's wealthy, eccentric art collector dad, Al (John Goodman), purchases a mattress from Brian. (Al has chronic back problems, meaning Goodman performs on the floor or at least on his back during most of his time onscreen.) Happy is sent to pay the bill and make an appointment for the mattress's delivery, and ends up falling asleep in the showroom. Thus begins a very tentative relationship between Brian and Happy, which takes flight with the two shyly coming together and (literally) charming the pants off one another.
Of course there are also awkward bumps and pauses. It's fun to watch two extremely quirky actors play such oddball characters, and to view a film that drops all pretense to realism. These characters with these particular motivations exist only in a certain kind of independent film. They come together, blurt out frank and challenging statements, act and react with the off-kilter spontaneity one -- at least this one -- rarely finds in real life, no matter how bohemian or alternative.
And then there is the weird, malevolent homeless guy who is pursuing Brian. (Me thinks Brian is schizophrenic?) Why the filmmaker chose to add in this plot line is as baffling as pretty much every other element in the film. When Gigantic had concluded, I thought of the Fitzgerald quote about the rich being "different from you and me." Not only do these characters move through and muck up the world with the ease of privilege, they seem to be from a different universe altogether, one made completely of celluloid. Most of the actions, situations and dialogue are so obviously movie conceits, it would be easy to become annoyed and disconnect with the film altogether. Even though no one would ever behave as these people do, I ended up rooting for them anyway, which is a testament to the talented cast. Dano and Deschanel are just so damn likable. It's hard to resist John Goodman, Ed Asner and Jane Alexander, no matter what they're doing. Ultimately, while I didn't buy the characters or the story for one second, there was something beguiling about the film's gentle surrealism.
Gigantic might be mumbling something about the difference in values across the various generations represented in the film. Goodman's and Asner's patriarchs are clearly speaking from a different generational perspective, while Brian's older brothers and Happy's older sister are caught up in some kind of nineties hedonistic materialism. Seems like Brian and Happy are just looking for something to love.
Gigantic opens Friday, April 10, 2009.