The image of an extravagantly dressed, Uzi-wielding, golden-eyepatched Oscar Isaac is a compelling one. It’s probably the only reason someone would watch the terrible comedy Big Gold Brick, the debut feature film from Brian Petsos. With this foppishly accented criminal placed front-and-center on marketing material, despite a percentage of screentime that’d give Bruce Willis’ most mercenary cash grabs a run for their desperately needed money, it’s clear the dismal movie knew what it had: A big name being silly, a premeditated and GIF-able selling point for an unwieldy passion project. I’m not here to take perverse pleasure in kicking a bad indie while it’s down, but this isn’t just an out-of-the-blue favor from a friend. It’s the culmination of a strange working relationship that’s been one-note from the start.
The pair co-starred in Revenge for Jolly!, a widely hated 2012 Tribeca pick (which Petsos wrote) with a cast impressive enough for some critics to wonder if “blackmail, extortion and/or just plain bribery” was involved. Isaac’s character is described in the official material as being the “deranged cousin” of Petsos’. Maybe Isaac just wasn’t getting to be wacko enough in mainstream fare, because from there, Petsos capitalized on the actor’s name and willingness to do variations on the same over-the-top act in a pair of embarrassing short films, starting with 2014’s Ticky Tacky. This is a brief revenger that’s extremely pleased with its simple surrealism: A Santa costume (a motif continued in Big Gold Brick), a stab-happy little kid, a balletic bit of self-immolation. There’s not much to it aside from Isaac’s physical presence, but that was enough to get it in a variety of film festivals and earn write-ups from the likes of Indiewire. Its headline proclaims the short features “The Most Insane Oscar Isaac Performance Yet,” though they must have skipped Sucker Punch from a few years prior. Half of Isaac’s dual performance as that film’s villain is the exact same kind of unhinged gun-toting gangster oddball as that in Ticky Tacky...only better. Ticky Tacky is poorly paced and stagnant, with even Isaac’s handsome mug failing to bring much energy to the tepid attempts at humor or the gunplay standing in for narrative.
The follow-up short, 2016’s Lightningface—in which Isaac’s aforementioned moneymaker is struck by lightning, scarred by the burn’s branching Lichtenberg figures—doubles down on the dead air. It’s this short that many of Big Gold Brick’s ideas come from: A self-destructive protagonist, a physical accident begetting a dull mental breakdown, a talking toy, overwritten philosophical dickering. Isaac is again either manic, chucking shoes and demolishing furniture, or meandering through long speeches. By this time, he was a certified movie star of The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse—it’s no wonder the short got attention. And it got plenty. A multi-franchise actor wearing an offensive Native American war bonnet? Why is this guy still doing this weird little stuff? Either he’s getting something out of it artistically, he really believes in his buddy Petsos, or he owes a mind-boggling amount of favors.
The latter two seem most likely when considering his role—as both bit player and executive producer—in the dire Big Gold Brick. In the casually racist, impossibly sexist wannabe Kaufman comedy, Isaac plays Anselm Vogelweide, a big-time crook whose sports betting is interfered with over the course of the movie’s incoherent narrative. Fine, sure, whatever. Half his glasses are faded into a patch (Petsos has a thing for aesthetic facial injuries) and he’s doing a voice to the extent that he’s nearly incomprehensible. Despite barely being in the film, only swinging by for a single-location day-shoot in the third act, Isaac leads the official trailer with a ridiculous titter.
That laugh, that empty caricature of something entertaining, says it all.
If Isaac was pushing himself dramatically, doing some kind of Nicolas Cage expressionism a la Vampire’s Kiss or even Never on Tuesday, I’d totally get it. You can lend your name to a friend in order to get their movie made while stretching your theatrical side to places that the Hollywood A-list really encourages you to forget. But he’s not. Every performance Petsos gets from his charitable star reads about the same: Underwhelming goofiness, deflated by actorly shorthand never called out by a filmmaker that’s just happy to have him around. It’s soulless, which reflects the material. Like the shorts leading up to it, Big Gold Brick’s pretentiousness is completely hollow and its cast is thrown to the wolves. Here’s hoping Isaac doesn’t appear in (or help bankroll) the next.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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