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Review: Gigantic

Paul Dano gains stature
By BETSY SHERMAN  |  April 21, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Gigantic

Gigantic | Directed by Matt Aselton | Written by Matt Aselton and Adam Nagata | with Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, John Goodman, Ian Roberts, and Zach Galifianakis | First Independent Studios | 99 minutes
Of the recent spate of young-man-finding-himself movies, Adventureland may be the most fun, but Gigantic sticks to the ribs. Debut-feature director Matt Aselton (a Worcester native who wrote the film with fellow Williams graduate Adam Nagata) has a firm hand on the tiller of this low-key comedy starring a poker-faced but nonetheless expressive Paul Dano.

The opening sequence, which depicts lab rats swimming for their lives, may be a nod to Alain Resnais's Mon oncle d'Amérique, in which the characters' lives mirror a psychology experiment. The scientist's visiting buddy, Brian Weatherby (Dano), fixates on the rat that's always first to give up the struggle: the quitter.

Brian will need a robust survival instinct during the couple of weeks Gigantic depicts. A New Yorker who sells pricy Swedish beds at a warehouse emporium, he's out of step with the vulgar, Type A personalities that surround him. Unmarried and 28, he's waiting to be approved to adopt a Chinese baby. Being a father is just something he's always wanted.

Fate places in Brian's path a father and daughter who seem joined at the hip, Al (John Goodman) and Harriet "Happy" Lolly (Zooey Deschanel). Al, a back-pain sufferer, blusters into the showroom and buys the top-of-the-line mattress. Happy comes in later to take care of the details and falls asleep on the merchandise. Brian drapes a blanket over her and politely waits a few hours until she wakes. It's clear they're attracted to each other: Happy propositions Brian the next time they meet.

But the colorful if pushy Al isn't the only formidable father here, as we learn when Brian, who was born to middle-aged parents who already had teenage sons, travels to Vermont for his dad's 80th birthday. Ed Asner's Kirby Weatherby is an old-schooler (when he accompanies Brian to the adoption agency, he's perplexed by the lack of Mad Men–style amenities, like booze and secretaries) who cuts loose in unexpected ways. He and his three boys have a tradition of mushroom-hunting in the woods under the psychedelic influence of same. Kirby is 100 percent supportive of Brian's adoption plan, even when Brian himself seems to be getting cold feet.

There are flashes of the absurd — chiefly the unmotivated attacks perpetrated on Brian by a silent aggressor played by Zach Galifianakis; yet the film never feels heavy-handedly kooky. And though it starts out as a life of Brian, it delicately shifts toward Happy, as the wide-eyed Deschanel wriggles away from the template of the madcap heiress toward something more real. She's gotten along so far on her good looks and daddy's money; now, she sees something she wants in Brian. But can she handle the instant baby that may get added to the mix?

Aselton doesn't waste his great ensemble cast — even Ian Roberts, who excels at playing macho pricks, gets to add color to the role of Brian's wheeler-dealer brother John. Dano is the anchor; the willowy, porcelain-skinned actor has shown himself to be one of the best of his generation since his debut in L.I.E. as an exploited teen. As Olive's Nietzsche-fanatic brother, he gave Little Miss Sunshine an element of gravitas. And he survived the histrionics of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, in which he played both evangelist Paul and his twin, Eli. Here his aspiring father looks to be merely the first in a gallery of grown-up roles.

Related: Review: The Good Heart, Review: Where the Wild Things Are, Review: (500) Days of Summer, More more >
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