Tuesday, July 18, 2017

GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA: a review of "The Big Sick"

Screenplay Written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Produced by Judd Apatow
Directed by Michael Showalter
**** (four stars)

In our current age of big budget sequels, prequels, re-boots, remakes, re-imaginings and all manner of superheroes, Legos, Jedi Knights and wizards and warlocks running rampant among our multiplexes, it is really amazing if you take the time to look at the films that are now not being made--films that were once mainstream staples, and for the purposes of this review, I am specifically referring to the romantic comedy.

If you have been frequent visitors to this site over the years, you will already know very well that I have been extremely critical of the modern day romantic comedy for quite some time as those films have typically extinguished any sense of actual romance and anything resembling the behaviors and motivations of actual living, breathing human beings in favor of one impossibly wacky plot driven contrivance after another. For me, if I am going to bother with viewing a romantic comedy, the proceedings need to mean something. That is, the comedy and most crucially, the romance needs to be strongly earned.

Yes, I know, I know, I understand the desire to just go out and have some cinematic cotton candy and not be terribly mentally or emotionally taxed. I do  understand and I do not begrudge any of you in that respect. I just have no need for "attractive, likable" celebrities frothing around (and clearly having more fun on set than I am in the theater audience) when what I am wanting and needing is something that depicts the emotional messiness of love, a story that reaches further and deeper and feels remotely tangible to what real people experience. In short, I am more of a person who will watch Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" (1997) ten times in a row than to ever sit through the nonsense of "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002) or, Lord help me, "The Proposal" (2009) ever again. And if those latter films are going to be the romantic comedy flagships, then it is a genre that truly deserved its near demise.

For a time, it was more than enough to make me swear off essentially all movie love stories altogether--especially as I am one that is not typically moved terribly much, or that often, by cinematic romance. I'm not heartless, by any means. When the stars are aligned, I can be deeply affected. But generally, those types of movies have been either too simplistic or too stupid or more than their share of both for me to give them any credence. Frankly, this particular genre had flown worlds away from the brilliant, hysterical, and downright aching honesty of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977) and it seemed that there woud be no going back.

Over the last ten years, I would say--and aside from some strong, smaller scaled independent films like Writer/Director Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" (2011) or Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener's excellent "Enough Said" (2013), for example--I have found that Writer/Producer/Director Judd Apatow has more than effectively taken up the mantle for how to effectively make genuinely funny and heartfelt romantic comedies.

As I have written in the past upon this site, Apatow instinctively understands that for these types of films to succeed greatly, they have to actually be romantic, sexy and sexual and the characters and their respective situations had to be grounded enough to allow any comedic proceedings--even when they escalate into madness--to carry any weight. At this time, I am just bursting with excitement to share with you that Apatow can now claim to be involved with not only the finest romantic comedic that he has ever been associated with, it is a romantic comedy that has beautifully resuscitated the genre as a whole.

"The Big Sick," produced by Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, is a triumph, unquestionably for Co-Screenwriter Emily V. Gordon and Co-Screenwriter/Actor Kumail Nanjiani, whose real life love story is on which this film is based, but for all of us in the audience. As far as I am concerned, this creative collective have not simply made a good romantic comedy, they have made a GREAT one. One that deserves its place as one of the very best films of 2017 but also one that deserves to sit right alongside, and comfortably so, Allen's "Annie Hall," as it is a film that perceptive, multi-layered, laugh out loud funny and undeniably, achingly, provocatively, urgently romantic.

"The Big Sick" stars Kumail Nanjiani as well...himself,  a budding Chicago stand-up comedian struggling to reach the next rung within the industry while also working as an Uber driver. As Kumail is part of a traditional Pakistani Muslim family, he endures the matchmaking efforts of his parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) who wish for him to follow in the tradition of arranged marriage, a construct he secretly does not believe in but grudgingly endures for the sake of his family.

One night, while performing at the comedy club, Kumail is pleasantly heckled by a White, blonde audience patron named Emily (Zoe Kazan), with whom he hooks up with after the show and the two soon begin dating, a reality he keeps secret from his family for fear of being disowned by his parents and in turn, a secret he keeps from Emily for fear that she woud never understand his family or their Muslim culture. When Emily eventually discovers the truth, and Kumail admits his uncertainty concerning the possibility of a future together, she angrily breaks up with him, leaving him devastated.

Weeks later, Emily succumbs to a serious lung infection and is placed into a medically induced coma. Kumail is not only forced to confront his emotions towards Emily and her medical crisis directly alongside Emily's parents, Terry (an excellent Ray Romano) and Beth (the great Holly Hunter), he is forced to confront the full trajectory of his life, from his comedic aspirations to his trepidacious feelings towards aspects of his own heritage and family.

Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" is a cinematic rarity, a romantic comedy that is brave and bold enough to weave a tale that speaks to the fantasies and realities of falling in love as well as the ebb and flow that occurs when attempting to stay in love, all the while finding ample room and space to explore the world of stand up comedy, inter-racial dating, a dramatic medical mystery, existential issues of life and death and most impressively, a matter-of-fact depiction of modern day, contemporary, 21st century cosmopolitan life of Muslim-Americans living in Chicago.

What begins as a genuinely witty urban romantic comedy becomes absolutely riveting in its authenticity and overall generosity of spirit as "The Big Sick" is a film that wisely possesses no villains or nefarious, duplicitous characters. Just a collective of individuals who are all simply trying to live their lives as best and as honestly as they are able, especially when and after tragedy strikes. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have composed a stunning, beautiful screenplay, as well as a document of the early days of their unconventional romance that also provides exceedingly rich, three dimensional characterizations of both of their families, respective friends and even potential love interests that "The Big Sick" becomes one of the most uniquely humane films that I have seen in quite some time.

Most crucially, and as previously stated, "The Big Sick" pulls off the revolutionary act of daring to showcase a contemporary world of Muslim-Americans through the essential lens of normalcy as we explore a family in which the tenants of their Islamic faith clashes against the influences Americanization. Kumail's romance and eventual devotion to Emily is not presented through any veil of Muslim self-loathing or as a rejection of self. What we are witnessing is a young man who simply wishes to fall in love with whomever he wishes, regardless of race, religion or faith.

And even with that, I was amazed with the depiction of arranged marriages within the film as it is never once regarded as strange, odd, weird or wrong. It is simply seen as being a piece of a culture, one that is upheld by Kumail's parents and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife, Fatima (Shenaz Treasury), a couple betrothed through arrangement, and is also the source of awkwardness, confusion, embarrassment and eve humiliation by Kumail and the assortment of young women who always arrive during family dinners, under the guise Kumail's Mother describes without fail with "I wonder who that could be?" and "Guess who dropped by?"  

All of the sequences between Kumail, his family and potential love interests are presented cleanly, honesty and with the utmost respect and authenticity, making the comedy and even the heartbreaking drama fully earned and believable, ensuring "The Big Sick" presents a rightful document of the Muslim-American experience (complete with elements of racism and post 9/11 fears) while also depicting the similarities and commonalities between Muslim and non-Muslim families as a whole.

And yes, the central relationship in "The Big Sick" is not necessarily between Kumail and Emily, but moreso between Kumail and her parents Terry and Beth, as they eventually bond while painfully awaiting Emily to wake from her coma. Certainly, there is the element of the culture clash but what is greater still is that as Kumail realizes that Emily is the woman he wishes to spend his life with should she awake, he is gathering a window into his own potential future by observing the scenes from the marriage of Terry and Beth, which indeed houses their own issues, complications, frailties as well as their endurance.

The fact that Holly Hunter remains a compulsively watchable and involving actress should come as no surprise to you. But it is the wonderful work of Ray Romano that often nearly brought me to tears with its genuineness and equal status to that of Hunter's work. Together, these two figures truly forged an honest dynamic that provided us in the audience with a history of their romance, marriage and their parenting of Emily that also superbly ran in tandem with the love story of Kumail's parents-a love story that flows between themselves as well as from parent to child.

And of course, what of the film's raison d'etre, the love story of Kumail and Emily? How rare it is to find a cinematic romance that is filled with such maturity, realism, palpable urgency and uncertainty, a remarkable feat especially as we already know the outcome considering the real world Kumail and Emily are indeed married and co-wrote the film's screenplay together.

Yes, it is indeed a characteristic of the (more recent) romantic comedy formula that we already know the film's ending from the one-sheet poster, which often makes watching the movie itself a 90 minute exercise in wheel spinning. With "The Big Sick," there is no such monotony on display whatsoever as we are given characters and situations that are as clever, intelligent, awkward, layered, engaging, difficult and as wrenching as real life as the movie's Kumail and Emily are forced to ask and confront hard questions and truths about themselves before they can fully embrace each other as a romantic couple.

In some ways, the film does indeed follow the romantic comedy formula of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl and so on but the film never descends into misguided, misbegotten misunderstandings. But for Kumail and Emily, what drives them apart and what could potentially bring them back together all rests within issues of race, religion, and family in addition to honesty, integrity, commitment and newfound maturity, which involves the taking of serious, painful risks in order to achieve a greater sense of personal ascension into adulthood. Please tell me the last romantic comedy that you've seen that has embraced those qualities so explicitly and completely?

Kumail Nanjiani, already a terrific presence in the ensemble on HBO and Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley" series, has made a wonderful, star-making splash as an actor and writer with "The Big Sick," as his wide ranging dynamic felt completely effortless, wholly inviting, comedically sharp and undeniably bittersweet and heartbreaking. Zoe Kazan, who already made a striking impression upon me with Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' criminally underseen, undervalued yet astounding "Ruby Sparks" (2012), which Kazan also scripted, is a formidable presence as well as a perfect on-screen match for Nanjiani as she simultaneously compliments and pushes him to become a better man, just as she is also discovering and re-discovering her own place in the world. Their's is a rare cinematic relationship to actually root for and celebrate and the two are absolutely sensational together--even as the bulk of the film keeps them apart.
As with Judd Apatow's finest film and television projects and productions, including "Freaks And Geeks" (1999-2000), "Knocked Up" (2007), "This Is 40" (2012) and others, Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" delivered a story and collective of characters that were vastly richer and more humane than I thought would have been possible. Additionally, the characters themselves are all more than deserving of having not only another hour's worth of screen time in this film, they are complex and compelling enough to house either a sequel or their own individual spin-off films. Frankly, I just did not wish for this film to end.

Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" is a marvelous film, an experience filled with warmth, poignancy, a tremendous amount of empathy and realism that perfectly augments the romantic comedy. It is a film that contains not even a stitch of hyperbole, manufactured plotlines or contrived emotions as Screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiami realize that their own real life situation, which they adapted for this film, possesses more than enough inherent comedy and drama that none needed to be forcibly injected.

So beautifully, they discovered ways to mine for the right amounts of comedy and even greater the truth of the proceedings in order to make the entire film resonate deeply.  And furthermore, with everything else that I have expressed to you in this posting, "The Big Sick" also offers a smart, sharp, astute and satirical look at the urban comedy club scene that is the equal to anything seen within Judd Apatow's sprawling "Funny People" (2009) and Mike Birbiglia's excellent "Don't Think Twice" (2016). When was the last time that you saw a romantic comedy film that even attempted to address, and therefore achieve, everything which I have described to you? I sincerely hope that should this film hit the mark with the masses as it already has seemed to accomplish with critics, the romantic comedy genre can look directly to this film as its proper rebirth.

"The Big Sick" is one of the finest films of the year.

No comments:

Post a Comment