Jun 26, 2009

Review Post 30: Gigantic / The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

DIR: Matt Aselton
CAST: Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner,
John Goodman, Ian Roberts

Zooey Deschanel’s eyes are spectacular; almost cartoonishly large, bluer than the sea, and sparkling in a way so dazzling you almost suspect it’s a special effect. They were the reason that, from the first time I saw her on film, I found Deschanel completely enchanting. I spent a lot of the running time of Gigantic staring at Zooey Deschanel’s eyes, because they were the most interesting things on screen.

Gigantic is about Brian Wethersby (Dano), a 28 year old bed salesman who meets Harriet ‘Happy’ Lolly (Deschenel) when she comes to pick up a bed that her Father (Goodman) has bought. As is the way of things in indie comedies the two hit it off and begin a relationship. However, things are complicated by their eccentric families, the fact the Brian is adopting a Chinese Baby, and the fact that a homeless man (Zach Galifianakis) is stalking and attacking Brian.

I think that plot summary quite neatly demonstrates the central problem with Gigantic. It’s REALLY quirky. It’s quirky in an almost aggressive way, a way that says 'look at me, I’m quirky, give me the traditional quirky Sundance movie slot in next year’s Best Picture nominations, because I’m so fucking quirky.' Quirkiness can work, look at the lovely Little Miss Sunshine which managed to make its characters ring true despite their quirks, but more often it feels forced, false, and is frankly irksome, as is very much the case with Gigantic. It’s a film that always seems to be trying extremely hard, which is exactly the problem; stories like this need to unfold naturally but here every scene seems to be striving to make us laugh, to make us fall for the characters, almost goading us with the overwhelming cuteness, and that makes it distancing and often annoying.

Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel are two of the leading young lights of American indie cinema, and while this is not a good film, and not a great showcase for their talents, both actors acquit themselves beautifully given the limitations of the script. Dano (who also acts as executive producer here) gives an introverted but nicely judged performance as Brian, making him appealing despite his oddness, which borders on creepy at times (honestly, what normal person has the lifelong ambition of adopting a Chinese baby?). Deschanel doesn’t move much beyond her usual kooky, soulful, twenty-something role, but she could charm the pants off an audience in her sleep and while Happy is no stretch for her at all she makes the best of it, though she still can’t bring plausibility to Happy’s chat up line to Brian “Do you have any interest in having sex with me”. Of course, girls who look like Zooey Deschanel are always saying that to guys they’ve just met.

The other performances are competent; even if John Goodman is just shouting most of the time he always does so in entertaining fashion, but the writing reduces the characters to a collection of oddball personality traits – there’s no depth, no dimensions. The writing is the film’s major problem. Gigantic never feels like a story, and certainly there’s not much to involve us in Brian and Happy’s burgeoning relationship so that we can root for them. It’s more of a series of skits, some are funny, especially those scenes involving Goodman, and those with Brian Avers as a scientist friend of Dano’s but others – as when Dano and his brothers do shrooms with their father (Asner) and the scenes in which Brian is attacked by a tramp – fall embarrassingly flat. Even when it’s working though there’s little holding the film together, and that lack of connective tissue means you never get involved in the movie and never care about the characters, which is death in a film like this.

Gigantic is a film I wanted to like – the cast is appealing, and at times it made me laugh out loud, but overall it’s a big mess, feeling as if Matt Aselton and co-writer Adam Nagata wrote three movies, accidentally had the screenplays bound together and then edited the resultant film down to 98 minutes. However, I could stare at Zooey Deschanel’s eyes for twice that time.

DIR: Remi Bezancon
CAST: Jacques Gamblin, Zabou Breitman, Deborah Francois
Marc-Andre Grondin, Pio Marmai

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is about the Duval family – Mum (Breitman), Dad (Gamblin) Two sons (Marmai and Grondin) and daughter (Francois). It tells the story of pivotal moments in the lives of each member of this eccentric family through five notable days (plus a few contextualising flashbacks) from 1988 to 2000.

It’s no use pretending that this is an especially original film. The subjects addressed by each day (a child leaving home, thoughts of infidelity, losing your virginity, marriage, death) are all such well worn situations that they are positively cliché at this point, but that’s a very small matter. The First Day of the Rest of Your Life may present things that we’ve seen a million times before, it may do it to the backing of a soundtrack that, while toe tappingly infectious, is itself massively cliché, but it does it all with such assurance, such lightness of touch and such total charm that the familiarity breeds not contempt but comfort and satisfaction.

The cast is excellent all round. The three young actors playing the children – Pio Marmai, Marc-Andre Grondin and Deborah Francois – were all Cesar nominated for their performances, Grondin and Francois winning Most Promising Actor and Actress respectively at the French Oscars. Those honours were fully deserved. Grondin takes a character you suspect will be a very typical movie teenager; disaffected, perma-sulking and hiding behind his long hair, and brings many more layers to him, as well as a believable progression as he grows up. Francois excels as Fleur, she’s got a role that, for much of the time, is written at a single note as much of the film covers Fleur’s rebellious teen years but she makes the character human, recognisable and sympathetic, particularly in the story in which she takes centre stage. I’ve been tipping Francois for some time, and this is yet more proof that she’s growing into one of world cinema’s great young talents.

As the parents Jacques Gamblin and Zabou Breitman are convincing as a couple who have been together a long time. There is warmth and comfort in their interactions that speaks to the long history between the characters. Both are supporting players for much of the film, much of their role to help create a believable family dynamic (which they do beautifully), but when they come to the fore in the film’s last 40 odd minutes they truly excel. Breitman is especially affecting in a story where she contemplates being unfaithful with her driving instructor, and the simplicity with which she ends that part of the story says more than most dialogue scenes I’ve seen this year, as does the excruciatingly emotional performance she gives in the film’s penultimate scene, again without a word.

While the stories, given that they have a little over twenty minutes screentime a piece, are somewhat broadly drawn, the script does find time for some small, subtle touches, a particular favourite of mine was the throwaway re-appearance of a character from Grondin’s story in the film’s final minutes. For the most part though First Day is a big, bold comedy, but one that seldom stoops to gross out humour (and the one time it does, to be fair, Deborah Francois is hilarious as she plays the scene) and never leans on that increasingly common and loathsome crutch of the comedy of cruelty. Indeed none of the jokes here feel like jokes, funny things happen and are said, they arise not out of a need for jokes, but the fact that people are naturally funny, that this family kid each other a great deal and we are being let in to their lives.

That’s very much what this film feels like, a peek into the lives of these vibrant and engaging people. The film has the mix of the dramatic and the mundane, the deathly serious and the laugh out loud funny that makes family life the roller coaster it is, it’s all beautifully and authentically captured in this fine film. The First Day of the Rest of Your Life could easily have been a dour, depressing film (you wouldn’t even need to change the events), instead it is vivacious and witty, but with a genuinely affecting melancholy streak running through it, which means that the film, as much as it will make you laugh, frequently pricks at the tear ducts. It’s a film that has a real effect on you without feeling like it is manipulating you, a smart, sweet and brilliant treat that will get its hooks in you from first frame to last. I urge you to discover it.

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