Big Sick, The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
For many, “The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter, is a solid picture because the comedy is both consistent and consistently smart—especially for a story with a medically induced coma right in the center of it. While I also share this sentiment, I found myself connecting to the material on a deeper level because I find it has a knack for plastering a goofy smile on my face in nearly every scene, especially during moments of silence between rapid-fire dialogue, because there is honesty even within the pauses. This is a challenge to get exactly right, especially in comedies, and to recognize that it is living upon its potential makes the audience feel good.
Although based on an incredible true story, writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the latter starring as the Pakistani stand-up comic who meets his future wife named Emily (Zoe Kazan) during one of his shows, do not rest on simply recalling unbelievable events to tell the story. Instead, the writers are interested in showing us, rather than telling us, why Kumail and Emily make a great couple even though at times they do not recognize it themselves. This is why the first third of the picture, the meeting of strong personalities, is at its most riotously funny and intriguing. Nanjiani and Kazan share excellent chemistry.
There is also honesty in its portrayal of how it could be like to hook up in modern day America. Numerous mainstream comedies tend to play the extreme card, often highlighting either the shame of having a one-night stand or a hook-up having no consequence at all. Here, it is willing to embrace a range of feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Yes, hook-ups can be awkward. Yes, they can be a lot of fun. And, yes, they can even lead to a meaningful relationship shared by both individuals willing to work at it. The film’s energy, ability to tackle truths, and willingness to show characters as living, breathing people instead of caricatures reminded me of Rob Reiner’s intelligent and hilarious “When Harry Met Sally…”
Another layer of honesty is in how it portrays parents. The material touches upon two sides of the same coin: Kumail’s traditional Pakistani parents (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher) and Emily’s parents who are trying to make a difficult situation work (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano). In the middle section of the picture, notice how the respective parents react to varying situations given a set of challenges shown right after another. We see the parents’ many flaws but at the same time we recognize the fierce love they have for their children. It is expected that these parents would meet eventually, especially since all four command strong personalities, but the picture is not about meeting expectations for the sake of plot.
“The Big Sick” offers small but highly recognizable moments of poignancy. Although Kumail’s situation at home with his parents is played for laughs quite often, it is likely to ring true not just for people of color who grew up in traditional ethnic households but also for everyone whose parents hold a certain level of expectations that must be met—even though the “children” are old enough to make entirely independent decisions on their own. It shows that although one may have moved out of the house entirely, certain dynamics do not change one bit.
They Came Together (2014)
★ / ★★★★
A parody of the romantic comedy sub-genre through and through, “They Came Together,” written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, for all its jokes and anti-jokes, should have been sharper and thus ought to have been a better movie. With a talented cast capable of wringing out laughter, genuine and uncomfortable, the final product is desultory and generic—just like bad romantic comedies it wishes to skewer. There is no excuse.
Molly (Amy Poehler) is getting over a break-up and owns a quirky candy shop where all proceeds go to charity. Joel (Paul Rudd) has a girlfriend, but one with whom he suspects is not serious at all about their relationship, and is a development executive at Candy Systems and Research—the very corporation threatening to push Molly out of business. Their “corny romantic comedy sort of story” is told over dinner with friends.
Rudd and Poehler share wonderful chemistry together. Half the time, I was thinking how much I would have enjoyed the picture more if it were played out as a straight-faced comedy with all the holes and clichés of meet-cute romance that is completely detached from reality. The two performers look good together during the build-up of scenes but the punchlines come off trying so hard that when a scene ends, we consistently feel robbed of what should be present underneath the jokes: a real, convincing connection between two people.
Romantic comedies are loved by many because the sub-genre often sells a fantasy: That there is a perfect person out there for every one of us. The screenplay fails to target this idea and so it goes on to create silly digressions such as Aryan families and wanting to get physically intimate with grandmother. While surprising and worthy of a chuckle of two, these contribute nothing to the momentum of the story. Just because a movie is a parody, it is not excused from moving in a forward direction with ease. Less than ninety minutes long, its running time feels closer to two hours.
It has the tendency to spell every joke and running gags—as if we were stupid enough to not recognize situations we have seen a hundred times. While very funny the first two times, the trick gets old real quickly and the habit becomes annoying. Is it too much to ask to have us participate? To me, the approach underlines that the writers do not have enough confidence in the material to allow us to decide what is clever and what is plain dumb. That is likely why they feel the need to hide behind a sort of self-awareness so often. After all, it is more of a challenge to critique a work that appears to recognize is flaws.
I enjoyed the jokes in the background, from pictures hanging on the wall (rather, pictures strung together by a piece of yarn) to the extras acting like they have stumbled upon a set of a movie. When I feel like I am trying to catch up with the jokes instead of an alarm going off every time there is supposed to be something funny that we should catch, there is a moment of engagement between viewer and film. Director David Wain can direct. I just wish he can write with a pen instead of a blowtorch. (Since the latter will destroy paper while the former is likely to preserve it… Do you see how annoying it gets when someone feels the need to explain to you when you are fully capable of making inferences?)