The press screening for “Gigantic” was, quite unsurprisingly, filled mainly with jaded film critics and depressed journalists. All around me the talk was of impending unemployment, ruined dreams of retirement and bleeding stomach ulcers. The most enthusiastic voices in the theater seemed to be the pair behind me as they put odds on which Bay Area theaters would be next to close. When “Gigantic” opened with a shot of rats drowning in an aquarium, I thought to myself, “I’m feeling this movie already.” The rats were soon plucked out of the water, but the audience, unfortunately, was not treated so well.
“Gigantic,” the debut film for director Matt Aselton, follows the story of Brian Wethersby (Paul Dano), a socially un-ambitious 28-year-old working in a mattress store in Brooklyn and dreaming of adopting a Chinese baby. One day, Harriet (Zooey Deschanel), a loopy girl who goes by “Happy,” walks in, and you can most likely conjecture what happens from there. As the pair enters into a tentative romance, Brian pursues his strange dream of adoption and Happy is forced to confront her life’s lack of direction.
Deschanel is adorable as always, and Dano’s performance is decent enough, but most of the film’s better moments come from throwaway scenes involving the couples’ financially successful yet offbeat family members. John Goodman does an outstanding job playing Harriet’s wealthy father, and Jane Alexander makes a brief but respectable appearance as Brian’s mother.
The most impressive portion of the film is a one-second shot involving escaped lobsters crawling across a cabin floor, but like many the film’s legitimately original scenes, this one is a marginal moment, quickly passed over. Although the aimless banter that fills the film’s many tangential sequences sometimes comes off as trite and contrived, such scenes generally feel less forced than those that are focused on the main plot points. Indeed, the most plot-heavy stretches tend to feel obligatory and chore-like.
Before being somewhat sloppily tied together at the end, the romantic thread of the story and the adoption thread are not really intertwined. There are stretches of the film where the baby issue is seemingly dropped altogether and it is actually a bit jarring when it reemerges. And why has Brian wanted to adopt a Chinese baby for as long as he can remember? We never find out, but then we never really care either.
A more annoying unanswered question arises from the film’s major subplot, involving an imaginary homeless man (Zach Galifianakis) that regularly appears and assaults the Dano character. At first this figure seems to imply that the film will be displaying some sort of social awareness – does the homeless man represent Brian’s upper-class guilt, or perhaps a fear of destitution? Exactly what the imaginary homeless man is meant to suggest is never made clear, but one can be quite certain that it is not either of the aforementioned possibilities or anything else quite so interesting.
It should be said that the film as a whole, and most notably the Wetherby family trip into the woods in search of psychedelic mushrooms, is quite beautifully shot. Occasional almost-but-not-really-surreal flourishes keep things mildly interesting, even if they serve no real purpose other than to distract from the film’s lack of a strong overall vision. The more whimsical moments and narrative detours show some promise coming from a first time director, but unfortunately these scenes are the ones that ultimately muddle the film beyond repair.
The film probably intends to make some sort of statement about family, maturity and privilege, but I would have to embellish and exaggerate if I were to describe it in any kind of articulate manner. There are enough of the right ingredients floating around to make this film curious and occasionally humorous, but they are not coherent enough to make it satisfying.
For me, the highlight of the film came about an hour in when a drunken lady in the back row of the theater vomited on the unsuspecting viewer next to her and an extended ruckus ensued. I was most amused by the real life humor occurring inside the theater, rather than the carefully scripted type on the screen. While “Gigantic” really does try to capture the common yet rare charm of everyday life, it too often comes off as contrived in comparison to the real thing. If you were planning see this movie on account of Zooey Deschanel’s skinny-dipping scene, don’t bother. You will most likely be disappointed.