Movie Review: Gigantic (2009)

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In his feature filmmaking debut, director Matt Aselton uses absurdism the way that Hitchcock employed the MacGuffin.

And in Hitch's world the MacGuffin may have been "that thing in which the hero is chasing" such as top secret documents in a briefcase or diamonds in a museum, but in the end as Hitchcock and scholars deduced-- it just turns out that it's an inconsequential piece of matter or material that propels his characters into action. Or in other words, we never needed to know what the hero was chasing specifically or what the top secret codes or devices sought after did since we were more than happy to just go along for the ride anyway.

Without over-explaining motives or plot structures, Aselton utilizes the exact same technique repeatedly throughout his intelligent, offbeat, and deliciously weird film Gigantic which hearkens back to his affection for "films and stories in which reality and absurdity cross [paths]" by filling his quirky indie charmer with a surreal series of events he reveals are "just there and you believe it."

The events include for starters the impetus for the screenplay itself as Aselton acknowledged that "when we wrote this movie we knew two things: there would be a nameless assassin hunting the main character and that we'd rather not overtly explain why."

In the film, Paul Dano's meek and sensitive twenty-eight year old Swedish mattress company employee-- Brian Weathersby-- is the last person on the planet that should grab the attention of a nameless and homeless assassin but for reasons unknown, someone's after Brian and whether you feel it's real or surreal or even metaphorical, it's there from the start.

Yet, despite that structural decision-- in the scheme of Gigantic-- this is just all in the periphery, cropping up unexpectedly in between the film's main plot that centers on Brian's long-time goal to adopt a Chinese baby. Obviously as a single man under the age of thirty, he's not the ideal candidate to make that lifelong obsession a reality but having put his name on three waiting lists, he's eager to start building his own family, which we feel stems from the fact that he's the youngest and least successful son (and a "surprise" baby at that) of a father (played by Ed Asner) who'd had him when he was fifty-two.

However, before he readies himself to return from New York City to Vermont for his dad's eightieth birthday (where-- again and quite absurdly-- the Weathersby men get high on mushrooms in a wooded cabin), he meets an entirely different family that changes the course of both the film's plot and his life upon the arrival of the larger-than-life Al Lolly (John Goodman).

A blunt businessman with a bad back-- before Dano's quiet Brian even begins to discuss the details involving a $14,000 Swedish bed that comes with a twenty-five year warranty-- Al fast-talks Brian into free shipping, handling, and delivery.

Arriving later with her father's credit card before she falls into an easy two and a half hour slumber on the grand mattress-- Zooey Deschanel's fairy-tale like entry into the piece as a Sleeping Beauty who despite the name of Harriet is routinely called "Happy" aptly brightens Brian's day considerably.

And, in a nice twist of fate after Brian is told by a coworker that the regular delivery "dude ate bad chicken," it's Brian himself who arrives with the mattress at the Lolly residence. Once there, unexpectedly and again very absurdly he's fast-talked once again by the loud Al and beaming Happy to take the rest of the day off from work and drive them into New York City to see Al's spinal specialist since Al doesn't ride in taxi cabs and Happy refuses to drive in the city.

While Al is told-- for what appears to be the umpteenth time-- that his back is fine and the pain emanates from stress, Happy proves to be just as forward as her father, offering herself up for a quickie in the car with Brian that leads to a budding courtship between the two eccentrics.

While, despite the fact that on the surface, they couldn't be more different as for example, the constantly restless Happy reads ads instead of articles and moves from one passion to the next in stark contrast to Brian's wish for stability in his life in becoming a father-- somehow their relationship works. Or I should say, it's successful at least until life and family intersect in daffy, nonsensical, and unpredictable ways as Gigantic moves to its amiable conclusion.

A true born storyteller-- Matt Aselton who collaborated with his co-writer Adam Nagata-- has inspired a breath of fresh air into American independent filmmaking in a movie that stylistically seems more European than traditional mainstream fare from our country. And in fact, Aselton readily reveals in the film's production notes that he is a major fan of Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie as well as the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard and the fingerprints of both men show up from time to time-- although thankfully in a far more linear and accessible fashion.

However, he also cites other maverick American helmers like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, and David Lynch whose painterly works and ability to think outside the box undoubtedly gave him the confidence to center a work on "what was happening to [his] characters in the present moment they resided."

Continuing on regarding his passion for the absurd-- the (in my view, existential or gently surreal) landscape of Gigantic is used for as he notes "liberating," and spontaneous effect since being in the moment without worrying about what will happen next is "ultimately the only thing that matters."

Along with Discreet Charm, Aselton makes a special mention of Harold and Maude director Hal Ashby's Being There in the film's notes for its similar approach involving "plain characters populating surreal worlds, [with] no need to explain their actions, or the madness that surrounds them." And indeed, there's a definite thematic and tonal link to Ashby's film which-- intriguingly-- also shares a one-degree relative in common with Aselton's Gigantic star Zooey's father Caleb Deschanel having been employed as the irreplaceable cinematographer on the masterful Being There.

While the film is sure to frustrate viewers who prefer the real to the surreal and find greater comfort in having everything neatly resolved-- especially when we're watching There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine's tremendously affable Dano being beaten to a bloody pulp by an assassin-- amazingly, we continue watching long after frequently rapid questions start cropping into our mind.

And the basis for this is simple-- namely that our enjoyment is augmented by the liberating cinematic approach that leaves everything in the realm of the unexplained MacGuffin as well as the sheer pleasure and uplift of this alternately dark and twisted yet assured, tender and refreshing achievement.

Likewise, I predict that like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, and Charlie Kaufman, Aselton will be a name we'll hear for a long while based on this debut work alone that also reminded me in tiny ways of the decorative works of Jacques Tati and the later entries in Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series.