Merging reality with the nonsensical on film is a tough art to master.
Better known as surrealism, the genre has been around for decades and mastered by few (mainly directors such as Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard and Hal Ashby). Their films were ground-breaking in that, realistically, the plots didn’t always make sense, but they didn’t need explaining. And surrealism is like that: If done well, it’s revealing and transcendental. If done poorly, it’s just plain confusing.
Matt Aselton’s directorial debut, “Gigantic,” falls into the latter category. Aselton grapples with the idea of surrealism, trying to create a world where reality and absurdity cross to convey greater ideas of human emotions and interactions. But “Gigantic” just feels disjointed. IN the end, it doesn’t add up to anything. Rather, it just feels like an odd, asinine tale that succeeds only in bringing the viewer into a theatrical world only to leave them there dazed.
The storyline goes something like this: Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano) is 28 years old. He has wanted to adopt a Chinese baby ever since he was 8 (like most children). His days are spent selling expensive Swedish mattresses and daydreaming about adopting.
One day, a loudmouth, expensive-suit-wearing businessman, named Al Lolly (John Goodman) comes in and picks out a $14,000 mattress. Later that day, Lolly sends his beautiful, though strange, daughter, Harriet (Zooey Deschanel) to complete the transaction. While there, Harriet falls asleep on one of the mattresses.
An awkward, hurried romance then ensues between Harriet and Weathersby, peppered with oddities that come along when the two characters’ eccentric families get involved.
But, not included in this storyline is the “sub-plot” of the film. IN one of the opening scenes, a heavily bearded, lead-pipe-carrying homeless man (Zach Galifianakis) attacks Weathersby. The brutal, unexplained attack seems at first like a simple stroke of bad luck for Brian, who seems to roam through life with a a half-asleep glumness. But this man reappears throughout the film, each time in a different guise, only to attack the main charater viciously. You latter realize that this man is a figment of Weathersby’s imagination, but every time he is attacked he walks away with actual injuries that remain on his face for most of the film. Why this man is attacking Weathersby is never explained, as part of the surrealist nature of the film, but somehow, it feels like it needs explaining.
In the director’s statement, Aselton said of the film, “At its leanest, it’s a story about a single man trying to adopt a Chinese baby while a homeless assassin tries to kill him. As its richest, it’s about people, what scares them, what excites them and how they treat each other.” OK, so there’s some explaining… in the press notes.
The film is tagged as a comedy, but don’t let this fool you. The mood is predominantly morose. Harriet’s nickname, “Happy,” turns out to be ridiculously ironic. A child of divorce, “Happy” really isn’t very happy at all, as evidenced when she wails during one scene, “My mother doesn’t call me on my birthday.” Deschalnel plays “Happy” Harriet as if she is comatose. Her voice trails off when see actually speaks, but most of the time she just stares off into nothingness. She tries to be quirky, which she is usually good at, but in this film she just ends up seeming odd and rather dull.
Aselton is clearly intrigued with a sort of strange family dynamic. There are a host of rather crazy family members that play supporting roles. As Lolly, Goodman is obnoxious and rude, cranky and not quite funny at all. Though he provides for Harriet, he doesn’t seems to connect with her.
Mr. Weathersby (Edward Asner) is also wealthy and quite old-fashioned, requesting bourbon during a meeting with his son about the adoption and inquiring to the adoption agent why he doesn’t have a “girl,” referring to a secretary. Both fathers are, quite simply, overbearing. Mrs. Weathersby (Jane Alexander) comes in at the end of the film only to deliver on prudent line: “Nothing is normal.” This is the one part that makes sense of the film as it attempts to explain the most baffling scenes. But it’s not enough. This is one film not worth figuring out.