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 Man, Flakes, Eulogy 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 (Elf, The 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?