Two tired, and seemingly opposed, trademarks of recent American independent cinema make for a deadly combination in Matt Aselton’s Gigantic. It’s an arch, self-aware puppy-dog love story, shot through with an overly aestheticized, almost clinical detachment. This off-putting hybrid of idiosyncratic romantic comedy and surreal, interiorized character portrait is never able to remotely reconcile its two tendencies: to both ingratiate the audience with its main characters’ sizable quirks and to visually and sentimentally distance us from those same characters. The result is restless yet at the same inert, zigzagging with thematic inconsistencies in its telling of the hesitant romance between dissatisfied 29-year-old mattress salesman Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano) and sprightly-spunky-zombified Harriet “Happy” Lolly (Zooey Deschanel, who’s sort of an expert at this point at sprightly-spunky-zombified young women), who have little more in common than pallid demeanors and pretentiously literate-sounding names.
Brian, played by Dano as expectedly passive, disheveled, and inward (is there any other kind of male protagonist in lower budgeted American films anymore?), has, according to his 80-year-old father (Ed Asner, oddly) been hankering to adopt a Chinese baby for years—ever since his eighth birthday, when he asked for one rather than a bike. This bit of family trivia, thrown away in a line to an adoption agent, offers a key to the preposterousness of Aselton and Adam Nagata’s script, which builds characters not from convincing histories and motivations but rather from patchworks of strenuously overdetermined eccentricities. Brian’s driven paternal instinct does allow the film to indulge in its one worthy, original idea, which is that it’s the man’s biological clock that drives and threatens his relationship, and that it’s Happy who has the cold feet. Rather than spin this somewhat winning conceit into an airy, romantic-comic depiction of pragmatism versus freedom, however, Aselton creates a somber, perhaps unintentionally dreadful mood piece that, in collusion with its two dead-eyed main principles, ensures we remain as emotionally far from Brian and Happy as possible.