Brian Petsos’ interminable “Big Gold Brick” may be a film absent even the faintest trace of purpose or momentum — its endless parade of energy-less moments connected only by the lack of life shared between them, like a daisy chain of skeletons who are all holding hands — but the writer-director sincerely deserves credit for willing his feature debut into existence. That someone with just a handful of wacky shorts to his name was able to make a 132-minute brain fart about the cosmic connection between a suicidal writer (Emory Cohen), the good-natured weirdo (Andy Garcia) who hits him with his car on the highway one night, and the frozen custard that binds their fates together… well, let’s just say “‘Southland Tales’ meets the worst Sundance movie of 2002” is a tough sell these days, and that’s before you add a hostile statue of Santa Claus, a fully adult high school basketball player named Beans Washington, and a deus ex meteor into the mix.
And while it’s true that “Big Gold Brick” was shot before the pandemic, and made with the help of Petsos’ friend and frequent collaborator Oscar Isaac (who executive produced the film, and cameos in it as a homicidal crime lord whose character is equal parts Peter Sellers and Sion Sono), such advantages only serve to underline how far removed this movie is from current notions of fundability. Even with Megan Fox in a throwaway role as “hot, sexually available woman with a spicy attitude,” Lucy Hale as “hot, romantically available woman with a nice attitude,” and a scene in which Cohen is chased through a supermarket by the undead cyborg from “Mortal Engines” (I’m still trying to work that one out), getting a project off the ground as daft and inexplicable as this one must’ve required the vision of an auteur and the energy of a mad scientist — to the point that Petsos was fresh out of both by the time he actually got to set.
For a movie so compelled by destiny and the secret designs of the universe, “Big Gold Brick” often seems totally random, scrambling in the dark as it searches for meaning. Stressed and depressed writer Samuel (Cohen, in the eccentric actor’s first uninteresting performance) is so lost that he’s literally introduced floating in space as he muses about fate, his voiceover cribbed from the biography he’ll eventually write about the man who’s about to run him over.
That man is Floyd Deveraux (Garcia, delightful in spite of everything), and he’s a mysterious scammer with a heart of gold. Upon learning that his vaguely impaired victim has a way with words, Floyd decides “this was meant to be” and hires the bewildered Samuel to move into his upstate New York house in order to author his life story — a story that he embellishes in front of Sam and keeps secret from both his much younger second wife (Fox) and the two children he has from his first marriage (Hale as Lily and Leonidas Castrounis as teenage delinquent Edward). As Floyd describes it, Samuel is soon “chronically in” his life.
The premise has potential, but Samuel is far too dull a protagonist to meaningfully explore what that potential might be; he’s a million tics in search of a character, and Cohen’s paranoid “Is this really happening or am I just hallucinating it all in hell’s waiting room?” performance works overtime to ensure that they never find one. Cohen is an actor prone to extreme choices, but in a film this ambivalent and unfocused — a film that leans on so many aggressive tics of its own, from slow-motion and discordant music cues to a “my life is a talk show” fantasy sequence so noxious it actually leaves you wishing you were watching “Joker” — his jitteriness reads like indecision.
Samuel doesn’t grow so much as he irritatingly vibrates in place, as both Cohen and the film around him aren’t sure if the character is schizophrenic or just struggling to make sense of his new reality; both possibilities are mentioned and then forgotten just as fast. One scene finds him noticing the typo in his own suicide note (“I am dome with this world”). Several more show him arguing with that Santa statue in Floyd’s guest room, scribbling in his notebook, and maybe displaying evidence of a superpower that he’s mistaken for a curse. All of these non sequiturs are unfunny, and precious few of them seem to know it.
Unsurprisingly, Samuel has little to do with the rare moments that allow you to appreciate the kooky absurdism that Petsos was going for; most people will be long gone by the time Isaac shows up as a trigger-happy psychopath of unclear European origin, but the actor’s five minutes of screentime left me wishing that he’d star in a broad comedy someday (“Life Itself” doesn’t count). Also, I was somewhat amused by Garcia’s earnestness in the scene when Floyd insists that high school basketball is even purer than college hoops, which maybe shouldn’t be the most appealing moment of a 132-minute movie, or the most concrete thing we learn about one of its major characters.
But that is what it is in “Big Gold Brick,” which is awed by the beauty of the universe and the brilliance of the human brain as it spirals towards a conclusion that might justify the stringy wig Cohen is forced to wear in the film’s occasional flashforwards, and fails to accomplish even that. The baffling coda this movie does leave us with is par for the course in a film whose every scene leaves you more impressed that Petsos was able to make it, and more confused as to why.
“Big Gold Brick” is now playing in theaters and on VOD.