Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Two Indies: 'Sunshine' and "Gigantic"

Film / Review

Film: Gigantic
Director: Matt Aselton
Year: 2009

Many of cinema's most divisive filmmakers are accused of betraying the story they're trying to tell by utilizing various stylistic affectations. Of course, this is true of all forms of art; those who choose to break away from established formula are often ridiculed for doing so. Wes Anderson, whose work includes "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," has suffered much scrutiny for eschewing traditional behaviors and establishing a wholly unique film grammar. His intellectually verbose and stoical comedies are beloved by many and reviled in equal measure. Perhaps what infuriates his detractors even more than Anderson's own work is the work of others that he inspires. A torrent of films over the past decade have been labeled, sometimes hastily, often appropriately, as 'Anderson knock-offs.' However, this director is only one of the influential figures in this 'quirky new wave' movement. Before Anderson, Hal Ashby was churning out similarly deadpan comedies such as "Harold And Maude" and Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World" has certainly influenced this decade since its release back in 2000, resulting in films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno." Both were Best Picture nominees thanks in no small part to their quirky characters and thesaurus-ready dialogue, tactics that are beginning to suffer the effects of over-exposure.

There's something different about Matt Aselton's left-of-center romancer, "Gigantic." Here's a film that had its premiere at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, as opposed to the usual spawning ground of the "little-movie-that-could"-- Sundance. And, in a sense, I can see why: Aselton's debut may look like an indie comedy, it may sound like your typical 'Anderson knock-off' in its half-mumbled, deadpan delivery, but there's a tonality at work here that feels unfamiliar to me and, dare I say, fresh? For one, "Gigantic" could only be cursorily described as 'funny'; the laughs are sparse, and usually followed by uncomfortable silences or, on occasion, jarring acts of violence. The hallmarks of a typical, quirky comedy are mostly in place: lots of oddball characters; requisite witty dialogue; and an awkward, young-love relationship at the center which also serves as the film's chief redeeming quality.

Aselton's film is set in New York City, and stars Paul Dano-- who also Executive Produced "Gigantic"-- as 28 year-old mattress salesman Brian Weathersby, who aspires to one day adopt a baby from China, a dream he's had since he was eight years old. Brian's a very introverted character-- his demeanor is the exact opposite of the fire-and-brimstone preacher Dano played in "There Will Be Blood," and yet more personable than Dano's Nietzsche-loving mute from "Little Miss Sunshine." This is an actor who has proved a willingness to embrace eccentric, moody roles, dating back to his superlative work as a young boy in Michael Cuesta's "L.I.E.," and in Michael Hoffman's "The Emperor's Club." Brian at first appears to be the most even-tempered character Dano has ever given us, but there are undercurrents here that hint at discontentedness. 

Playing opposite Dano, and as the love interest of the film, Zooey Deschanel seemingly represents the antithesis to her co-star's sad-sack outlook. Her character, Harriet 'Happy' Lolly, is introduced as free-spirited, forward, and impulsive, but her given name is actually more ironic than appropriate, as there are undercurrents here as well. Still, it's unsurprising-- and probably heavy-handed-- that Happy's effect on Brian's life is an eye-opening one, introducing him to a world of indulgent human pleasures. 

The catalyst of this romantic meeting is the sale of an expensive Swedish mattress, procured by Happy's robust and blustery father, Al Lolly (John Goodman), from Brian's workplace. Al sends his spacey daughter to pay for the mattress, and thus she and Brian meet, immediately forming a bond when Brian allows Happy to nap in the store for awhile, tenderly covering her with a blanket. The scene is quirky without being too cutesy, which is commendable for this genre. Their romance evolves from here, as Deschanel treads territory similar to that of her work in David Gordon Green's romantic indie, "All the Real Girls." (Though I'm sure I'm not alone when I classify Happy's coyly spoken "Would you like to have sex with me?" as being more idealistic than realistic.) In any event, it's the chemistry- no, the relatable awkwardness of this relationship that becomes the film's saving grace, and affords "Gigantic" pardon for traversing familiar territory, especially when the inevitable 'conflict' arrises and predictably tears the couple apart.

Also interesting, though far less effective (and admittedly more curious than successful), are the many subplots that broaden the narrative scope of Aselton's  very strange film. Goodman could play sarcastic, bourgeois Al Lolly in his sleep, but a running gag concerning the character's back problems-- and a particularly riotous exchange between he and his chiropractor-- provides the film with some much needed color, as does Brian's senile, shroom-popping father, played by Ed Asner (soon to be seen in Pixar's "Up"), and Jane Alexander as Brian's mom, who delivers the film's knock-out line: "nothing's fucked up, nothing's beyond repair." Clearly the most noteworthy diversion is that of a surrealistic device in the form of a mysterious and hostile homeless man-- you'll have to trust me on this one. Played by increasingly-visible comedian Zach Galifianakis, "Homeless Guy" (as the cast list designates) is psychopathic in his relentless pursuit of Brian, attacking him with a metal pipe on the street, with a gun in the woods, and looming in the periphery on several occasions. It's difficult to share my thoughts on this particular element of the film without spoiling things, but: yes, I do understand it's implication and, no, I don't think it entirely works.

"Gigantic" is an oddity: tonally inconsistent, thematically vague, intermittently entertaining, and even occasionally touching. It's a relationship movie, a romantic comedy, with elements of a horror/thriller, and traces of poignant, convincing drama. Its title continues to baffle. Does it refer to Brian's adopted child's enormous head (which fills the film's final frame), to John Goodman's bulbous character, or to a bear-chested whale of a man who appears mysteriously atop a building at one point? More likely, it means to evoke the huge problems which confront us throughout life, often soothed by the companionship of another. The love we find can be just such a “gigantic” presence and can eclipse the burdensome troubles we cope with. The film's apparent flaws can be ignored, since its impact is undeniable. This is especially true during the final sequence, which has a communal and familial catharsis that approaches that of last year's "Rachel Getting Married" in its emphasis on the importance of caring for others. Matt Aselton's debut feature inarguably draws influence from similar quirky fare, but rather than copy-cat like so many other filmmakers, the director, in an admittedly messy and erratic way, seems to be making noticeable strides, breaking with formula in ways that are somewhat bizarre and bold. For this particular genre to give us a work like "Gigantic," I count my blessings.

Grade: 2.5

Film / Review

Director: Christine Jeffs
Year: 2009

Amy Adams is quite an actress. Excluding her forgettable role as the middle-nun in "Doubt" last year, Adams has turned in consistently compelling and nuanced work in a variety of roles—admittedly most are riffs on the same, rambunctious character. Her latest project, with fellow carrot-topped siren Emily Blunt, is unlikely to convert any of Adams' detractors. Those who find her bubbly positivity to be obnoxious may actually like her less here, since it's her first real, dramatic leading role. What I find appealing about all these seemingly optimistic characters that Adams brings to the screen is their vulnerability. A bit like Sally Hawkins' Poppy in last year’s "Happy-Go-Lucky," Adams' character in "Sunshine Cleaning" is defined by much more than her beaming smile and cheery demeanor. Unlike Poppy, Adams' character uses her optimism as a defense mechanism, or as a way of coping with difficult circumstances. 

Adams' Rose is a single mom, involved in an affair with her married High School sweetheart, Mac (Steve Zahn), and struggling to make enough to raise her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), by working a demeaning job as a housekeeper. She was once the envy of her classmates, as the head cheerleader, but now she serves them-- in one scene, Adams painfully captures the embarrassment of cleaning an old classmate's home. By most measures, Rose's life is depressing, but she is "strong" and she "can do anything," as she constantly tells herself in the mirror-- sometimes even believing it. Predictably, her younger sister, Norah (Blunt), is just the opposite: a disenfranchised do-nothing who still lives at home and smokes a lot of dope. Norah runs through menial jobs and causes more stress for Rose than she is worth as Oscar's babysitter. Not surprisingly, neither is happy, and so when Mac suggests they get involved in the crime-scene clean-up "racket," both, desperate for cash, jump at this odd occupational opportunity.

"Sunshine Cleaning" is by-the-numbers indie-dramedy fare, complete with a twinkling, instrumental score that backdrops (in this case) montages of the two girls cleaning blood from shower stalls and tile walls-- which is, at least to this viewer, both unsettling, and tonally off. Still, it’s the performances that make this formulaic material worthwhile: both Adams and Blunt are likable enough to carry this hackneyed screenplay. Adams is the main draw; luminous and graceful as always, there's a heartrending rawness to the actress's performance, and there are few in this line of work whose gaze is more alluring and emotionally penetrating. Blunt is nearly as good, playing Oscar to Adams' Felix, and being appropriately ditzy and oft times vacant. The actresses play off each other well, and it's the authenticity of their sisterly bond that makes "Sunshine Cleaning" more than the sum of its clichéd parts.

Aside from a strict adherence to tried-and-true narrative structure, which makes the film too predictable, "Sunshine Cleaning" is largely without glaring faults. However, there are a couple of egregious sequences: the opening scene, for one, which involves a suicide that could have just as easily been suggested rather than shown; a heavy-handed scene in which Rose attempts to speak to her dead mother through a car radio; and just about every scene with Alan Arkin, whose crotchety old geezer grandfather is ripped straight from "Little Miss Sunshine," and makes comparisons between the two films (they also have the same producer and, uh, name) unavoidable. Other secondary characters are similarly ill defined, such as a lesbian doctor (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who befriends Norah after the two cross paths when the girls clean up after her dead mother. Ditto a one-armed store clerk (Clifton Collins Jr.) with a penchant for building model airplanes, who registers as more of a gimmick and as a vessel through which life lessons can be taught to Rose.

Thankfully, none of these failings are fatal, as "Sunshine Cleaning' keeps its focus clear and pronounced, examining the relationship between these two sisters, and developing their characters enough to hold interest. It's far from a perfect film, and this Sundance-bred formula has, at this point, been stretched to the breaking point, but Adams is so good in the lead that she's able to elevate the material.

Grade: 2.5

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