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.
Monster, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
In order for an allegorical horror picture to work, it must first be successful as a horror film. “The Monster,” written and directed by Bryan Bertino, is well-intentioned but it is far from an entertaining and exciting submission to the genre. It lacks vitality, joyousness, and creativity that memorable creature-features possess and so sitting through it is not only a bore but also a waste of time. For a movie that is supposed to function on a metaphorical level, the characters are written as though they were ripped right off standard horror fares where they make one stupid decision after another.
The centerpiece of the story, a strained mother-daughter relationship, is not compelling. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) are on the road late at night during a storm after yet another day of anger and resentment in their home. Kathy loses control of the vehicle when an animal appears out of nowhere. They examine the animal but immediately notice something strange: the corpse has wounds—deep scratch marks—that are highly likely not directly due to the collision. Later, back inside the inoperative car, Kathy and Lizzy notice that the corpse on the road, there merely a few seconds prior, is no longer around.
Notice that everything in the above description offers no originality. Because it is so standard, so cliché, we wait for a twist or a breath of fresh air amidst the foul stench of recycled elements. A surge of inspiration, whether it be in the form of thrill or suspense, never comes. Instead, we are provided numerous derivative flashbacks that show the abuse Lizzy endures under the care of her drug- and alcohol-addicted mother. We see screaming matches. Lizzy being neglected. Lizzy getting hit across the face. Obviously, the metaphor is the mother being a monster. Kazan plays the character most unconvincingly.
For us to invest fully into the story, at the very least, the central relationship must be convincing. Kathy the abusive mother is thrown out the window altogether the moment the accident occurs. She becomes motherly, significantly warmer, someone one wouldn’t think to be so bad without the hackneyed, ill-placed flashbacks. There is a disconnect between the past and the present Kathy which is partly Kazan’s responsibility to bridge since it is her job to interpret the character. Instead, she employs her usual techniques of a doe-eyed, soft-voiced young woman as if she were in an independent comedy-drama she had gotten accustomed to. I got the impression that she is a one-note performer.
Partly responsible is the writer-director for not having created a character who we come to recognize is extremely flawed yet who still possesses redeeming elements. It goes to show that fusing drama and horror requires a superior ability to understand psychology. Merely showing familiar images of child abuse is not enough; it must go deeper than behavior in order to make a compelling character who we root for later on because it feels natural, not due to the plot forcing us to see yet another behavior that we cannot relate with on any level.
“The Monster” does have an actual monster in it, if you were wondering. Its look is nothing special, but I commend how shadows are utilized to hide it for the majority of the film. When shown full-bodied, however, it looks like someone wearing a bulky rubber costume.
What If (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a medical school dropout, and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator, meet at a party and sparks fly between them almost immediately. The problem: Wallace is still trying to get over a breakup while Chantry has a boyfriend of five years (Rafe Spall). Recognizing that it is difficult to find another person that one whom can connect with almost on an instinctual level, Wallace and Chantry decide to be friends. The more they spend time together, however, it becomes clearer that maybe they ought to take their relationship on another level.
Directed by Michael Dowse and based on a screenplay by Elan Mastai, “What If” is an overlong, too-twee-for-its-own-good romantic comedy that goes nowhere fast. Despite solid performances by Radcliffe and Kazan, not even their effortless charm can perform miracles on a sinking ship. The ship could not sink any faster so that the torturous experience could finally be over.
The soundtrack is overbearing in that it gets in the way of real emotions. Instead of employing silence from time to time in order to highlight realizations and sudden turn of events, cutesy folk music is used to make us feel warm and cuddly. I did not buy a second of it. The material is supposed to be inspired by Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally…” but other than the question of whether or not the opposite sex can truly remain just friends, this movie is like that romantic comedy classic if its brain and subtleties were taken out.
The supporting characters are either malnourished in terms of development or supremely unlikeable, from Ellie—Wallace’s sister who happens to be a single mom—to Dalia—Chantry’s sister, a typical blonde bimbo who talks like her IQ is in the single digits. Because the supporting players come across fake, the world that Chantry and Wallace inhabit neither feels real nor does it offer anything substantial or interest. They exist for the sake of having color commentaries, bland dividers from one scene to the next.
I hated how Chantry and Ben’s relationship is handled. They are supposed to be living together for five years, but not once do we feel that they were once happy or they are happy but are currently going through a rough patch. A litmus test when it comes to characters who are supposed to have known each other for so long is whether the audience can imagine how their past must have been like. Here, we do not get that opportunity. It is all about what is in front of them—Chantry and her increasing feelings for Wallace and then Ben trying to advance his career. Their life together is one-dimensional.
“What If” is based on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. One has to wonder whether the play is adapted properly to the screen. What the picture lacks is a sense of real intimacy between people who are afraid to cross certain lines. Instead of trying to be cute, it should have attempted to be honest. Because honesty does not result from cuteness but cuteness can result from honesty.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a high school dropout, was only nineteen years of age, his novel was published and topped The New York Times Best Sellers. Now that he’s twenty-nine, he feels the pressures of writing a highly anticipated follow-up but he’s experiencing a drought of inspiration. When his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) encourages him to write–about anything, even if it is far from great–Calvin begins to put into words the ecstasy he feels when he’s with Ruby (Zoe Kazan), the girl in his recurring dream. One day, Calvin wakes up and discovers that not only has Ruby stepped out of his fantasy, she has the memory of them being a couple and living together for some time.
“Ruby Sparks” is successful in being an appealing love story with a twist not because of its quirks in the narrative or the idiosyncrasies of its the characters, but for the filmmakers taking the responsibility to embrace its premise and taking it all the way. The question goes beyond whether Calvin and Ruby are going to make it as a couple given that one of them is a real person and the other is, arguably, only sort-of real. There is a philosophical overcoat that the film explores: what responsibility does Calvin have toward his creation while at the same time wanting to be with her on a physical, emotional, and spiritual sense? It’s funny that the picture even acknowledges the awkwardness of this dilemma.
While the fantasy is the alluring element, the way in which select characters react to and digest the bizarre situation is tethered in reality. Chris Messina as Harry, Calvin’s brother, has a tricky role but manages to hold his own as our protagonist’s voice of reason without coming off overconfident and jealous. When Harry offers Calvin a piece of advice by citing examples from his marriage, we can feel the genuine love he has for his brother and yet at times there is a sly twinkle in his eye which might suggest that if he were in Calvin’s situation, he would take full advantage of what was put on his plate. Harry is given a complexity that is uncommon from supporting roles in zany love stories. I wished, however, that Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) had not been painted as stereotypical hippies.
The film also shows its confidence by sometimes making Calvin downright unlikable. Like real person, he has a specific personality and viewpoint of the world. Watching him, I wasn’t certain that he would be the kind of person I would like to have as a friend. He has a proclivity for neediness and self-pity that I find somewhat repulsive. So when Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), an ex-girlfriend he despises for breaking up with him only days after his father died, criticizes him at a party, what she says has merit. If this had been a one-dimensional screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Lila would have come across as a villain and we would have been completely on Calvin’s side. Though we do not see Calvin and Lila’s relationship develop, we get a sense of their history and the feel the wounds they are still recovering from.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” shows insight as to what makes its subjects tick. Because of its consistent awareness and ability to surprise without being showy, I am very disappointed with the ending. It is nothing but a convenient and superficial way of reminding us that it is ultimately a love story. Sometimes love is not about having a person next to you but about having the courage to accept the way things are and hoping not to make the same mistake when another opportunity presents itself.
★★★ / ★★★★
Sam Wexler (Josh Radnor), on his way to an opportunity that could get his novel published, met a boy (Michael Algieri) who was accidentally left by his foster parents on the subway. Feeling responsible because he was the only witness, Sam planned to take Rasheen to the police station, but the boy said he didn’t want to go back. Sam sensed that there was something wrong, perhaps an abusive household, so he unwisely took Rasheen to his apartment and allowed him to stay there indefinitely. Despite his friends’ concerns, Sam failed to contact the proper authorities. Written and directed by Josh Radnor, “Happythankyoumoreplease” was an interesting look at late twenty-something New Yorkers as they tried to figure out what they wanted in life. The conflict was between romantic love and career, but the factors that lie in between were far more fascinating. Although I’ve seen its specific type of comedy-drama, there was something endearing about it because there were small details in all characters that felt honest. For example, Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) wanted to move to Los Angeles to expand his career while Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) hoped to stay in New York because it was her home. I liked the way Radnor allowed the characters to discuss why they felt like moving or staying was the better option. Although they were young, Mary Catherine and Charlie were adults. Real problems almost always don’t have easy solutions because solutions sometimes depend on perspective. There was also Annie (Malin Akerman), inflicted with an autoimmune disorder, and her bad taste in men. She just couldn’t seem to find someone who was ready to settle down. Like most of us, she clings to her expectations about her ideal partner: funny, kind, and good-looking. In reality, with a little bit of luck, one can find someone who embodies two out of the three qualities. Annie met Sam #2 (Tony Hale), the plain-looking guy in the office who kept trying to make conversation with her. Initially, she just brushed him off because he didn’t have the three aforementioned qualities. Through their interactions, she learned a thing or two about herself. More importantly, it did so without the material hammering us over the head. The one thing I loved about the movie was in the way it portrayed friendship. Notice that despite the ups and downs in the characters’ lives, friendship was the one constant element. I thought the underlying message was if you have friends–real friends, like the ones you can hang out with any day of the week and talk about absolutely anything–everything should be okay. I liked that message because even though it may not be true all the time, it had truth in it . “Happythankyoumoreplease” made me feel happy, grateful, and yearning for more. It didn’t offer anything new but it served as a nice reminder of the sunnier things life can offer if we welcome it with a smile and open arms.