The Big Sick

The Big Sick
dir. Michael Showalter
scr. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon

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Romantic comedy is, contrary to appearances, very difficult.

    Sure, you can make an easy one, and there are thousands of those, as cardboard and bland as the generic westerns or gangster pictures that once crowded theater screens. That’s what genre is when done indifferently. It’s a template you follow to make something that looks like something else so people who like that general thing will go, “Yeah, that’s familiar.” It’s Pavlovian. It works for a reason. It’s a model for a reason.

    And there are plenty of comedians who make the jump to feature films in material they write that’s sort of generally about their experiences, and some of it’s good and some of it’s bad and most of it is relentlessly self-focused, and that’s fine. It’s basically a calling card, a jumping-off. It’s so common at this point that it almost feels like the modern equivalent of the HBO half-hour in the late ‘80s. “You know you’ve made it when…”

    The Big Sick stands out, though, in every way, and it is impressively smart and sweet in equal measure. It’s a fairly gentle film, which I appreciate. So much of our pop culture is abrasive these days, and there’s certainly plenty of room for that in this story if that’s the direction they took with their storytelling. But, as seems fitting for a love story, this is a story in which the transformative power of love is front and center.

    Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling comedian whose traditional Pakistani parents are trying to find him an arranged marriage. Great set-up for a comedy right there, and that’s certainly one that would be new to a section of the mainstream audience. Instead, the film deals with what happens when Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who Kumail immediately starts falling for. Okay, that’s plenty, right? Nope. Things get complicated for Kumail and Emily and, not long after they break up, she has to be rushed to the hospital where she is put into a medically-induced coma. This brings Kumail into direct contact with her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are justifiably confused about why their daughter’s ex-boyfriend is at the hospital. See what I mean? Lots of complications on top of complications.

    Oh, and it’s true. Did I mention that? I first met Kumail and Emily several years ago when I knew them primarily from their podcast, The Indoor Kids. We ended up playing XBox games together online from time to time because of mutual friends, and it was always nice to run into them around LA at comedy shows or film nerd events. They’ve always struck me as a genuinely strong couple, complementary to one another, with a very grounded attitude about things, and watching this movie was fascinating because of the way it recontextualized these two very real people I know. Zoe Kazan is a terrific choice to play the real Emily Gordon, who is just breathtakingly positive about things, and Kumail does the best work of his career bringing his story to life. He’s been consistently good on Silicon Valley, and he can make even a small appearance in something like Central Intelligence into a big enough laugh that my boys were quoting him weeks after they saw it. We get a chance to see behind the sense of humor here, though, and that’s quietly amazing for American mainstream movies in general. I don’t look at filmmaking as a case of quotas, but I am always thrilled to have a voice in the mix that wasn’t previously represented. If movies are indeed empathy machines, designed to help us try on one another’s skins, then movies like The Big Sick are the very best version of that.

    Like Aziz Ansari’s terrific Master of None, The Big Sick is careful not to make the traditions of Kumail’s immigrant parents into a joke or a bad thing. Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) make their parental concern into something warm and touching. They want their son to be happy, and they want him to be connected to tradition, and there’s not a single thing they do in the movie that they don’t do from love. In fact, the most surprising thing here is how well-written the parents are on both sides. There’s nothing selfish about the way the script by Nanjiani and Gordon portrays their parents. I love Terry and Beth. Ray Romano was stiff his first few years on Everybody Loves Raymond, but he has matured into a terrific actor. He’s heartbreaking to me here, so strong and yet so vulnerable. I’m not shocked that Holly Hunter is awesome. I’m just shocked that we get so few opportunities to remember that Holly Hunter is awesome.

    The Big Sick does a nice job of realistically portraying the world of stand-up comedy, never letting that become the focus of things. Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and many others show up to lend some strong comic support, but the film keeps its focus tight, really letting us go through this with them. This feels like a movie that is of the moment, a look at what America can be at its best, a collision of cultures where the result is harmony instead of harm.

Gerald's Game

Gerald’s Game
dir. Mike Flanagan

scr. Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan

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Longtime fans of Stephen King had plenty of reason to worry when The Dark Tower finally snuck into theaters like a fart in church, but 2017 has turned out to be one of the best overall years for adaptation of the horror legend’s work in quite a while. Mike Flanagan’s feature version of this dark and troubling minor gem is surprisingly rich and controlled, and it’s one of the best showcases the great Carla Gugino has ever had as an actor.

    It’s also a very hard film to recommend because when it gets ugly, it gets as ugly as you can possibly imagine.

    Mike Flanagan has been building a solid, sturdy filmography, with no home runs so far but a whole lot of doubles or triples. He’s had one film essentially fall off the face of the Earth (Before I Wake) for no good reason, and that sort of thing can derail a career. Flanagan’s response? He took a book that seemed like a losing proposition as a film and he turned it into one of the year’s essential horror films. Hell, I’d argue that unless you see Gerald’s Game, you aren’t really having a conversation about the year’s best films full-stop.

    The set-up is as simple as it is horrible: Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) decide to visit their remote lake house for a weekend to try to kickstart the sexual side of their marriage. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the headboard and abruptly drops dead on top of her, kicking off one of the most harrowing stories of how to survive a trauma that I’ve ever seen on film.

    Finding a way to tell this story and keep it active and engaging is, of course, the single biggest challenge. Stephen King had the benefit of first-person voice to tell the story, but unless you want your whole movie to be a shot of a woman lying on a bed while she speaks in voice-over, you’ve got to try something else. The solution here is elegant and significant; it allows Greenwood a continued presence in the movie, and it allows room for Gugino to play several different things within each scene. There’s a fiendish timetable to the way the film drops each new horrifying complication to the scenario, and there are moments here that are stark and scary and shockingly simple. Flanagan reminds us of the horrifying potential of something as mundane as a shadow, and he has a real knack for finding the most squirm-inducing way to play these beats.

    Gugino’s career has been a study in how an actress takes control of things by both playing to and playing against the male gaze. She’s acutely aware of how she’s been cast for visual impact in certain roles, but she has also clearly pushed for more and more control of things, and the projects that she’s had the most control of reflect a powerful feminist voice. Jessie is a woman who has some deep secrets, and watching Gugino dig through all of them and have to confront some of the hardest truths that anyone can grapple with is emotionally devastating here. This is not just some empty horror thrill ride. This is the story of a woman who has been broken for most of her life finally facing trauma and finding a way to regain some strength and control. She’s a fighter, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in anything this year.

    Bruce Greenwood is a guy who I always enjoy, and he’s a terrific piece of shit here. What I find fascinating is how he can turn that charisma of his to relentless decency and strength (a la his crucially important performance in the 2009 Star Trek), or to something black and rotten like Gerald here. He’s not “evil” in any easy or traditional sense, but something in Gerald is wired very wrong, and the five minutes after those handcuffs first go on is one of the scariest stretches in any film this year. As soon as Gerald gets a whiff of real fear from his wife, it’s like his eyes go black and roll back so he can feed. It’s ugly, and the way Greenwood removes that mask to show the cruelty hiding beneath it is memorable.

    At this point, Mike Flanagan has to be considered one of the heavy hitters in the genre. Gerald’s Game may be playing on Netflix, but it is as major a film as anything released to theaters this year. It is horror on a human scale, more affecting because of how personal it is, and it continues this new explosion of effective Stephen King adaptations. This belongs in the same rarified air as Misery and Shawshank Redemption and The Dead Zone and Christine when we talk about movies that get Stephen King 100% right, while its incendiary sexual politics make it an essential text for our tumultuous times.