Gigantic – Matt Aselton (2009)


It’s always a crapshoot when a new Zooey Deschanel film comes out. Sometimes it’s a wonderful show of skill by a gifted actress breaking free and taking us on a vivid journey. The rest of the time, we get the opposite: maddeningly quirk-filled indie-film coffins that take us six feet under with her. Gigantic (out on DVD this week) falls into the latter category.

Deschanel plays Harriet “Happy” Lolly in writer-director Matt Aselton’s debut feature about a lonely mattress salesman, Brian (Paul Dano), attempting to adopt a baby from China. After Happy’s father (John Goodman) buys a mattress from Brian’s store, Happy shows up to pay for it and falls for Brian’s story and kind, quiet mannerisms.

It’s material that Aselton never seems to be in control of, giving us alternately flat comedy and dry drama. It’s a film completely lacking in energy, focus and passion: three principal reasons to stay in your theater chair. That it attracted so many stars (including indie super-producer Christine Vachon) is mind-boggling.

The subject of adoption is approached like a quirky eccentricity, a storyline used for a laugh and to build the tension between boy and girl instead of a life-altering undertaking. That the gender roles are swapped in this case is made irrelevant by the enclosed nature of the story. Brian is never seen going through the rigorous process of adopting a child – he never has to leave his own world, except to briefly dip his toe into the waters of the Lolly lifestyle.

Instead, his main hurdle is the long waiting list. He kills time by skinny-dipping in a public pool with Happy and ’shrooming in the Vermont woods with his father and brothers while a crazed homeless man (Zach Galifianakis) inexplicably tries to assassinate him – not exactly future foster parent behavior.

Dano rocked the foundations of his character’s Little Boston church in There Will Be Blood, but he’s miscast here. While it’s a one-off for Dano, Gigantic is a backbreaker for Deschanel. She is the closest thing we’re likely to get to an American Anna Karina, but her choices leave much to be desired. Like her work in Yes ManFlakesEulogy and, to a lesser degree, the recently released (500) Days of Summer, her performance in Gigantic fails to deliver on the early promise she displayed in All the Real Girls and Almost Famous, six and nine years ago, respectively. How many more of these roles can her popularity absorb before something gives? She’s never worked with a director as strong as Jean-Luc Godard, it’s true, but she’s never gone back to the few good directors she’s worked with (or perhaps she hasn’t been invited back). Her random luck with mainstream flirtations (ElfThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have kept her in a Winona Ryder-esque bubble of security, but right now it’s the personal charm more than anything else that keeps us tuned in. How much longer?

Bringing Out the Dead – Martin Scorsese (1999)

It all started out downhill for Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese’s film about an insomniac paramedic suffering through an existential crisis, starring Nicolas Cage, and written by Paul Schrader. It was Schrader’s involvement that seemed to doom it from the very get go, leaving it wide open to the sort of Taxi Driver comparisons that no film could live up to.

Cosmetically and thematically, the two seemed to be so similar that Bringing Out the Dead was thought to be a sequel, either in fact or in spirit. God has given the world a lot of lonely men, and the old, pre-Giuliani New York where Scorsese plied his trade had more than its quota.

Paramedic Frank Pierce (Cage) doesn’t seem to have always been one of God’s lonely men, though. There was a time when he was a healer, a guide, almost a priest tending to and healing his flock on the overnight shifts in the West Side neighborhood he grew up in. He speaks of a time when saving a life was almost an out of body experience, one he got as much good out of as he life he pulled back from beyond. His hands had moved with speed and skill that didn’t seem to derive from him. He was a conduit, designed to save lives. But he hasn’t saved anyone in months by the time we meet him. By the look of his eyes, he hasn’t slept in just as long.

A paramedic in a slump is something entirely different than Mattingly in a slump, but this has become something more than a slump for Frank. He is almost resigned to the fact that the power that used to guide his hands has left him. Central to his problem is the specter of a young homeless girl named Rose who died under his care that is haunting him, taking over the face of everyone he sees. It’s the guilt from her death is killing him, or, at the very least, killing the people he can no longer save.

Frank’s is a very Catholic guilt, an all out systemic blitz on his soul, or what he thinks of his soul, that has penetrated him so deeply that it’s literally causing him to stop functioning. Catholics (especially lapsed Catholics) are in some manner essentially beasts of burden for their own guilt. It’s a familiar theme, especially for Scorsese, who built his career on the Catholic misery in Mean Streets and Raging Bull. It’s heavy, wracking weight is no less a burden because of how well essayed it is in art. Frank’s guilt has become a parasite, eating from the inside out, blunting his senses for everything but the ability to spot another broken soul, like Mary (Patricia Arquette), who father is the first body and soul he has rejoined in months, but is ultimately a wasted effort. It’s a cruel move to allow this man to save someone beyond actual saving, only prolonging his misery, not his life. Frank reads it in his eyes, and entertains Mary’s father’s misery in his head as if it were his own, which only further wracks him with guilt. But an essay on Catholic guilt sure doesn’t sell any tickets.

Along with the Taxi Driver comparisons, the film was never sold right. Selling a film right is everything, as we’ve just seen with John Carter, and Dead suffers from one of the worst, most ambiguous trailers you’ve ever seen, smooshing together every element from the film so that you don’t know if it’s a ghost story, a horror story, a drama or a comedy. While it’s all of those things in the decompressed space of the film’s running time without being confusing, the short trailer cannot handle such an overload of genres tugging us in this direction and that direction and the other. But external issues aside, Bringing Out the Dead suffered more acutely from a few of its own very real problems. Chief among them was the use of a needledrop score consisting of The Clash, Johnny Thunders, the Stones and UB40 laid over the wall-to-wall shag carpeting of Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets. Scorsese needed a helping hand with his soundtrack, someone to reign his excess in, but never found that helping hand. In stead of atmosphere, or aural cues, the film’s soundtrack becomes a din, like someone playing the radio loudly in the next room while you’re trying to watch this film.

Bringing Out the Dead is a film that critics and Scorsese fans like a lot more than average moviegoers. I worked at Blockbuster when this came out and it was barely touched on the rental shelves, which I had trouble with, reconciling my love of the film with the general indifference, even hate. The division line isn’t an artsy-fartsy line drawn in the sand, I don’t think, I think it’s just that you have to want this film. Directors have their cheerleaders, and Scorsese has more than most. But having to want a film is not the ideal way to go into it, even if it does allow you to overlook flaws more effectively, and this film has a seemingly equal ratio of flaw to brilliance.

Red State – Kevin Smith (2011)

It’s hard to recall a movie that’s more confrontational than Red State. Both the film itself – a damning portrait of a super-strict cultist religion based on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church – and its director began the journey to the screen in a highly combative spirit. Most of what Smith himself has done reeks of a wounded ego after his last film, Cop Out, faced a severe critical drubbing that he still has not recovered from. I suspect many of us would have the same lingering issues to deal with if we faced such harsh criticism, but Smith, like Elizabeth Wurtzel or Sarah Palin, brings much of it on himself through his outspoken Twitter feed and podcasts in a time when the people have a more powerful voice than the ones with the megaphone.

But to spend too much time on that is to miss the point, perhaps. There is a film on the line here, and a new distribution model is being tested. It’s a film and distribution model we’ve been hearing about for years through the hard road that Red State faced to get financed, both due to its religious content, and how much of a departure it is from its director’s previous work.

Different may be an understatement: There is very little in the way of an authorial stamp to Red State beyond the sex jokes that it kicks off with, and the religious trickery at its conclusion. But those jokes are generic, far removed from the gasping-for-breath hilarity of Clerks or Chasing Amy, and the trickery in comparison to Smith’s Dogma.

That Matt Damon-starring firestarter was the charming story of two morons, the black 13th apostle and a Catholic girl with a shortage of faith who try to stop two rogue angels from destroying the world by proving God wrong. It came with an authenticity, a confidence and a certain playfulness. But Smith grew up a good Catholic boy in New Jersey, so that was in his nature. Red State, about an extreme anti-gay protestant splinter group that loves guns (and, apparently, knitting), is a foreign concept to most rational people, Smith included. Where Dogma had wit and insight built on a lifetime of thought, Red State has an outsider’s kneejerk reaction to a sick cult, one that slowly devolves into caricature by film’s end, rendering it a wholly useless take on the subject.

The film is essentially more of a Waco or Ruby Ridge story than it is a Westboro Baptist Church commentary. After luring in several victims (led by Michael Angarano as Travis) with the promise of sex, the congregation proceeds to drug and cage them. They execute a gay man who is wrapped in plastic in order to, it seems, keep his gay blood from touching their altar. The escalation of violence is a somewhat abrupt turn from the light beginning of kids looking to get laid via computer, but it’s not wholly unexpected. From there, it’s something of a race against time for the three remaining victims to escape the heavily fortified compound before the ATF, led by a totally wasted John Goodman performance, lays siege to the building.

The churchy segment starts off strong, with Michael Parks (as homophobic madman mastermind Pastor Abin Cooper) stealing the film with a 20 minute-long sermon that outlines the ethos and venom of the church’s faith. Aside from that, however, very little about this thing works. It’s not insightful or funny. The story is betrayed right off the bat by a stunningly weak script, something that’s normally Smith’s strong suit, and weak direction that doesn’t know what to do with its stars, including Melissa Leo. Red State lacks focus and clarity, has no real point of view, and if you buy a second of the climax, I’ve got a bridge and some magical beans to sell you.

The distribution model – a road tour followed by VOD availability and a limited theatrical release – may work for Smith, but he’s spent almost 20 years now building up a fairly loyal fan base (including this writer). So, like Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead or Joe Swanberg’s big idea, this kind of self-distribution can work for him, but it won’t be the kind of “revolution for the little guy” that was promised. You have to have a name and the sellable personality to match to get away with this kind of thing, and if he has nothing else in life, Smith has exactly that.