Big Significant Things Dir. Bryan Reisberg

[Oscilloscope Laboratories; 2015]

Styles: road movie, comedy, drama, wimpy millennial guff,

Second only to the Western, the road movie embodies the contradictions of American society. The open road is a seductive vision — it reminds us of the pioneers, setting out in pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and it’s been fodder for both low comedy and high drama. There’s a flipside, though, and that’s in the desolation, the overwhelming emptiness, of the Western hinterland, an alienation that creeps into the hearts of both Clark Griswold and Captain America (Peter Fonda, not Chris Evans — a Marvel road movie though?) no matter how close they get to the horizon.

Big Significant Things, the first feature from Bryan Reisberg, hews pretty close to that vision. The driver here is Craig (Harry Lloyd), an advertising executive taking a tour of roadside attractions in the Redneck South. Craig is driving alone, and for the early stretch of the film Reisberg clouds his motives, embroiling him in a series of low stakes comic set-pieces: buying beer for a group of ungrateful teens, struggling with a taciturn motel owner. But as the attractions get kitschier — a giant rocking chair, a mock pioneer woman with a huge skirt — his confusion and loneliness become more apparent. He’s looking for an escape route, away from the girlfriend and the new house waiting for him in San Francisco, away from a life that seems no more real than any of the auto-monuments marking his way.

As a set-up it’s hardly ground-breaking, but there’s the occasional moment of charm and the sense of alienation is well captured. The characters are dwarfed by the fiberglass tat at the side of the road, or they’re outlines against the light-polluted skies of nothing, nowhere towns. Reisberg appears to understand that a sense of place is one of the keys to the road movie, but his choice of driver is less successful. Lloyd, an Englishman, gives a strangely mannered performance, falling back on an array of tics to portray a preppy New Jerseyan. While it’s a given of the genre that the hero is basically incompatible with the environment around him, the problem here is that we feel alienated from the hero, not his surroundings. Even the Finnish girl Ella, played with restraint by Kristen Kosonen, feels less out of place. By the time Craig reaches his destination, a giant star in the backroads of Virginia, you don’t feel as though you’ve watched a character unravel. You feel like you’ve watched an actor play the beats of the road movie in the most generic way possible.

That feeling of “you” is important. To take Griswold as an example, the zanier moments of National Lampoon’s Vacation are anchored by the everyman quality of Chevy Chase’s performance. There’s a suggestion of depth, but he’s shallow enough that we can strap ourselves into his well-grooved driver’s seat and feel the exhaustion and hysteria of the trip to Wally World. Here, Craig is so oddly specific in his background and motivations, and so bizarrely played, that the balance is totally off. In no way does he feel like an audience surrogate as we watch him careen against a series of existential crises that might have been more interesting after a further round of auditions. It’s painful to say it, since in most respects Big Significant Things is a decent example of the genre, but the desolation we’re left with in that final shot of a glowering Craig is only partly intentional.

Most Read