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?

In Your Queue 3/12: “We Have a Pope”, “For Ellen”


We Have a Pope (streaming on Netflix, Amazon) When it comes to picking a new pope, the Vatican plays it pretty close to the chest. Rumor and speculation aside, no one really knows what happens except the cardinals. Since we have no evidence of what happens when they pick the pontiff, Palme d’Or-winning director Nanni Moretti fills the knowledge gap in the most Catholic way possible: through absurdity.

Michel Piccoli plays an obscure cardinal named Melville who, after many deadlocked ballots, is unexpectedly named pope. As he is being announced to the masses in Saint Peter’s Square he is struck by the mother of all existential crises, and the anxiety-stricken Pope runs away from the Vatican, leaving the College of Cardinals and Catholic bureaucrats sequestered with the Pope’s unwilling shrink (Moretti) as the pope traipses around Rome anonymously, trying to figure out what to do.

Moretti’s intense focus on the absurdity of the situation is a grace stroke, making it specific without being an in-joke for Catholics-only. Piccolo is wonderful as the pope, but Gianluca Gobbi, as the Vatican guard who is charged with ruffling the pope’s curtains every now and then so no one figures out what’s going on, really steals the show.

For Ellen (streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime) Seeing the trailer for it, I thought it was somewhat surprising that For Ellen couldn’t gain a real foothold once it came to market. It stars Paul Dano in an intense performance as an almost-famous musician named Joby who’s returned home to sign divorce papers. His wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva), is about to get remarried and wants him out of her life. She wants him out of their daughter Ellen’s life too, which is something he wasn’t expecting. Joby goes to devious means to spend some time with Ellen in this almost one-man show.

Dano, who played a mute for much of Little Miss Sunshine, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, though he puts in a strong performance here. It’s an interesting portrait of an uninteresting man – a character we’ve seen many variations on in the past – made palatable by his surroundings.