Big Gold Brick Review: A Quirky Meta-Narrative About the Art of the Scam

Brian Pestos’s flair for go-for-broke zaniness transmutes what might otherwise have been a lump of self-indulgent clichés into gold.

Big Gold Brick
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

With his debut feature, Big Gold Brick, writer-director Brian Pestos’s flair for go-for-broke zaniness transmutes what might otherwise have been a lump of self-indulgent clichés into gold. As Floyd (Andy Garcia), the suave enigma at the heart of the film, says to Samuel (Emory Cohen), the down-and-out writer that he’s just accidentally hit with his car and soon entices to become his biographer, “When opportunity knocks at your door you might want to open it, even if she’s wearing a goofy hat.” The film’s refusal to take itself too seriously isn’t (only) a means of preempting criticism, but a matter of accentuating its novelistic, unreliable narration and overall fixation on implausibility.

There’s no shortage of alcoholic writers in books and movies, let alone Kaufmanesque meta-narratives on the artistic process, but as played by Cohen, Samuel is more deranged buffoon than tortured genius. At the end of his tether, he accepts Floyd’s offer and moves in with his benefactor’s family to recuperate. That, though, is trickier said than done, given their fractious dynamic, and the open contempt with which they view Floyd. Among them is his philandering wife, Jacqueline (Megan Fox), who’s a high-powered lawyer; their adult daughter, Lily (Lucy Hale), a failed concert violinist who works as a librarian; and their teenage son, Edward (Leonidas Castrounis), who has a very strong affinity with black metal.

As Samuel adjusts to his new life and conducts interviews for his book, Floyd’s larger-than-life persona only grows, until the biographer begins to see in his subject not just a father figure, but a psychoanalyst, even a god. Meanwhile, the brain trauma sustained in his first “meeting” with Floyd manifests in comically surreal episodes. It all comes to a head when Floyd runs afoul of one Anselm (Oscar Isaac), a criminal mastermind who exudes a vaudevillian evil.

Big Gold Brick challenges us to take this story at face value. From the opening sequence, which sees Samuel embark on a sloppy bender to the pulverizing chords of King Crimson’s “Starless,” the film thrives on incongruity, in this case between image and score. Pestos gets a lot of mileage out of this technique through the inclusion of jazz and classical music. The intentionally histrionic acting—especially by Oscar Isaac—also chafes against naturalism.

Throughout, the film is punctuated by flashforwards that show Samuel promoting his bestselling book, With Bricks of Gold, which is a brick in its own right. He intones passages which then become voiceover narration, the elevated diction of which butts heads with the goofiness depicted on screen, until these interludes seem suspiciously like delusional fantasies. Interviewers, even Samuel’s publisher, admit to never having read the book—a nice little commentary on how hype can transform cultural artifacts into a sensation without anyone having to actually engage with them past the act of purchase.

All of this complements the kitsch-surrealist deviations into Samuel’s psyche. There’s an instance of shrinking silverware, a dream sequence in which he becomes the fisherman depicted in a painting in his guest room, and a scene where he makes a 1909 penny vanish with a lightning strike from a tiny thundercloud, matching Lily’s gold lightning bolt necklace. If these moments are funny, they also discombobulate, shaking the veracity of Samuel’s perspective until the viewer has to wonder who’s the real author.

Big Gold Brick’s first half introduces too many intriguing and idiosyncratic ideas, characters, and subplots for the second to properly and convincingly flesh out. Even though this plays into the narrative’s knowing concern with unreliability, too much is left dangling. Whereas Floyd is brought to life with seemingly countless details—such as his quirk of offering toothpicks as if they were cigarettes—Jaqueline and Lily are barely sketched out, and Big Gold Brick seems content to leave them as the mere “conundrums” that Floyd considers them to be.

In its second half, the film scrambles to tie-up two hours’ worth of loose ends, throwing off its easygoing pace in the process. Still, it’s hard to fault a new director for cramming in as many ideas into their work as will fit, even if some are half-baked, just in case they never get another chance at bat. Either way, Big Gold Brick succeeds in positioning its viewer as a skeptic confronted by the scam artist that is art, asking us to consider: If art can bamboozle us into accepting a more magical version of real life, the hoax may prove authentic after all.

Score: 
 Cast: Emory Cohen, Andy Garcia, Megan Fox, Lucy Hale, Leonidas Castrounis, Oscar Isaac  Director: Brian Pestos  Screenwriter: Brian Pestos  Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films  Running Time: 132 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2022  Buy: Video

William Repass

William Repass's poetry and fiction have appeared in Word For / Word, Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. His critical writing can also be found at Full Stop. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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