By Elias Savada.
Petsos likes to mix some old-fashioned, heavy-handed whimsy with oddball characters, then sprinkle in a ton of exuberance. Maybe too much.”
You might recognize the name Brian Petsos, but most of you are thinking “Who?” After watching his feature directorial debut Big Gold Brick, you might be saying “Wha?” So, let’s clarify.
Petsos proudly wears a darkly comic shroud about his cinematic self. His career began as an actor in the mid 20-aughts, doing improv at Chicago’s Second City, then performing in, writing, producing, and/or directing dozens of short films, with quite of few of his fellow thespians now quite recognizable. Kristen Wiig (an executive producer on BGB) was a co-star with him and Adam Brody in Sticky Minds (2010), with Petsos writing and co-producing. Elijah Wood acted alongside Petsos in 2011’s Boobie, with Petsos donning the same technical hats. And then there’s the Oscar Isaac connection.
Petsos and Isaac were first joined at the hip in 2012’s Revenge for Jolly!, a blunt, grizzly revengecapade feature written by filmmaker, in which he and Isaac star as low-brow cousins in search of the killer of a pet dog. Barely anyone standing (or sitting) in their way for “justice” gets out alive. If you have 81 minutes to spare and subscribe to Amazon Prime Video, give it a try. There are also two shorts that star Isaac which Petsos wrote and directed, and which lead directly into his current farcical mindset. Ticky Tacky (2014) and Lightningface (2016) can be seen at on Petsos’s vimeo channel. Two chamber pieces that take strange, sideway glances at reality, and one that seems to use a similar set for Isaac’s sadly few, but very impressive, scenes in the new feature. More on him later.
Off-kilter bromance is a theme that permeates the filmmaker’s works, including Falseface (2008), a short in which he and Will Forte suffer each other as “best buds,” from a seemingly improvised idea by Petsos.
And that leads to Big Gold Brick, one of the stranger pick-up movies I’ve come across. It’s a tale about Samuel Liston (Emory Cohen, but think young Bobcat Goldthwait), a despondent, self-defeating sad sack who intersects with Floyd Deveraux (Andy Garcia), a middle-aged success story (or so he says) in the middle of a lonely road late one night. Distracted while savoring some Uncle Pete’s Frozen Custard in the burb of Rockchester, Deveraux runs his Cadillac smack into Liston, the town’s most recent arrival. As a good Samaritan, Deveraux will watch over the recovering victim at the local hospital, then invite him into his house to write his biography.
At some early point in the film, the Yiddish word beshert came to mind — and divine providence lands large in the film’s premise — albeit the actual “this was meant to be” definition for this meet-and-greet, in which soulmates are accidentally tossed together, is heavy with a grain of salt. That Uncle Pete’s was founded by Liston’s father seems to get lost (other than as a running gag) in the film’s genre-crossing lines. The heir-apparent has cut himself off from any family and its business, but a company billboard overlooks that accident scene.
Petsos likes to mix some old-fashioned, heavy-handed whimsy with oddball characters, then sprinkle in a ton of exuberance. Maybe too much, as Big Gold Brick runs a longish 2¼ hours. Told in spotty flashback — after Liston has recovered and cleaned up from his extended funk — and after he’s written a well-received tell-all tome called With Bricks of Gold, the bulk of the film follows the unusual friendship between the former hard-drinking schlub and his transformative experiences with Floyd and his family, which includes Floyd’s trophy second wife (Megan Fox) and two wildly divergent children, Lily (Lucy Hale), a former violinist and recovering addict to whom Samuel takes a fascinating attraction, and the possible rabbit-killing arsonist-in-training Edward (Leonidas Castrounis).
In the present-day setups, the well- but oddly-groomed Liston is shown reading selections from his book, chatting on a talk show with a misogynist host, getting psychiatric counseling, etc., all filling in some of the backstory gaps, before snapping the author back to his peculiar times with the Deveraux clan.
Cohen, who was a regular cast member on The OA and Smash television series — and played Saoirse Ronan’s boyfriend in the enchanting Brooklyn (2015) is barely recognizable in his new guise. Greasy, shoulder-length hair hides most of his face for much of the film. He’s added a few pounds, but he fits his loser, fish-out-of-water, brain-traumatized character just fine.
As for Deveraux, he loves his endless supply of toothpicks and seems to be a sophisticated, well-respected man about town, offering handshakes here and compliments there. He spouts French and American Indian ancestral connections (with a portrait of Napoleon overlooking his desk). Despite his claim that he’s an open book, well, the secrets (government? military?) slowly make their way out. Sure, they make be fake, but that’s all part of the entertainment in Petsos’s script. The pretense starts to slip away, especially when you start connecting the dots surrounding his keen interest in a local basketball player.
Yeah, it’s not a logical story, but it is interesting, and Petsos adds some cutesy flights of fancy in Liston’s fractured soul such as haunted dreams, a talking Santa Claus doll (voiced by Cohen), and even telekinesis, which play up some fantasy/horror genre motifs.
As the film enters its final third, all the trust that poor Liston unwittingly slathers on his mentor/surrogate father starts to unravel. And then the film switches gears. In those last 45 minutes, it’s all about gangsters that can’t shoot straight, and that’s when Oscar Isaac finally shows up, as Anselm Vogelweide, a wealthy, asthmatic foreign businessman with some nasty looking henchmen. He’s Mephistopheles by way of Dr. Strangelove. Quite mad. Quite fun. I wish there was more of him and less of the slower parts of the movie.
As the film wanders about this last chapter (well, there’s an epilogue that follows, of course), Petsos tosses in everything but the kitchen sink: bank robbery, clown makeup, clownish stupidity, rushing toward a foolish ending, and a wink of magic.
Ultimately, the Big Gold Brick should have jettisoned something so that it didn’t overstay it’s welcoming concept. I would have been happy with a smaller serving, rather than an overstuffed journey down Petsos’s rabbit hole.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).