The Big Sick (Showalter; 2017)

Kumall Nanjiani stars in the autobiographical film The Big Sick which chronicles the story of how he met and fell in love with his then girlfriend, now wife and head writer of the movie, Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan – granddaughter of Elia).  For the rest of this review when I refer to Emily or Kumall I am referring to the characters in the film unless stated otherwise.  Kumall is working as a stand-up comedian and an Uber driver, and he meets Emily when she shouts out at one of his shows.  After the show he approaches her inside the club, and after a pleasant introduction chides her for heckling him.  This leads to a relationship in which both are obviously far more attracted to and in love with the other than either are willing to admit, even to themselves, and we are treated to a fairly typical will they or won’t they love story until Kumall’s Pakistani culture and upbringing get in the way, leading to their break up shortly before Emily comes down with a disease so serious that she needs to be placed into a medically induced coma to stabilize her bodily systems.  Enter Emily’s parents, Beth Gordon played by Holly Hunter and Terry Gordon played by Ray Romano, and the meat of The Big Sick as Kumall comes to realize that he made a huge mistake, and now he has to work and live closely with the parents of the woman he loves and whom he has hurt so badly.

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I admit to having a general dislike of romantic comedies.  It is the genre I least enjoy watching as, ironically, I find them to most often be the most unrealistic films of all with the way they too often portray love as a magical thing that once you overcome an obstacle will solve all your problems and never take any work again.  All fiction is ultimately a form of wish fulfillment, and this is a form of wish fulfillment I just cannot relate to.  I felt I needed to put that clarification out there before I say that I absolutely adored this movie and everything about it.  This is a love story, most definitely, but it’s one that has no passionate proclamations given during a sweeping musical crescendo.  There is no leaping into arms, staring into eyes, and weeping as three magic words are spoken.  No.  This is a movie that is incredibly authentic, and makes the phrase “fall in love” make sense as even our two sarcastic and way too cool romantic leads look at one another with glances that say “how exactly did we end up here?”

The Big Sick looks at love in a very mature way, but it does far more than just that.  It’s also a look at race, culture, and the grand, boiling melting pot that is the United States.   The greatest threat to the budding relationship between Kumall and Emily is not her disease, nor is it racism, though that is looked at here and there throughout the movie – how could it not be in a film about a Pakistani man dating a white American girl.  The greatest threat is the effect growing up in an Islamic Pakistani household has had on Kumall’s mindset.   This conflict between Pakistani culture and Kumall’s more American way of thinking makes for the true heart and message of the movie, and also for many of the biggest laughs.

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It’s hard to say which is more of a crowning glory for The Big Sick, its writing or the acting on display, but these two elements married together are the reason The Big Sick demands your attention.  While this is not Kumall Nanjiani’s first acting gig, he has done a lot of television shows and voice acting, this is his first leading role in a feature film and it’s also a role in which he’s playing a fictionalized version of himself, which I can tell you is not as easy as you would think.  He absolutely carries this film beautifully showing off his charm, humor, introspection, and vulnerability in just the right doses to make a character we truly relate to and adore.  Zoe Kazan has a probably even more difficult role as she has less time to make us fall for her portrayal of Emily before she ends up spending the majority of the movie in a coma, and she does just that giving us a young woman with a razor sharp wit and a confidence which never even gets close to the realm of arrogance who we can’t help but adore.

The true show stealers, though, are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents.  Until they arrive the movie is light romance that starts to dip its toe a bit into cultural introspection, but The Big Sick transforms into something truly smart and new when Beth and Terry arrive on the scene.  I don’t want to give any spoilers away except to say that the relationship between Kumall, Terry, and Beth, the way it starts and the way it develops is one of the most authentic and meaningful looks at human relationships I have ever seen in a film.  This is because, again, there are no big speeches, revelations, and musical cues to be found.  Everything surrounding these three is understated and completely human, from first impressions, to stumbling, awkward conversations, to the ultimate realization that they all love the same person, and beyond even that.  This is not drama, this is real, and that’s what makes The Big Sick so funny, so heartwarming, and so relatable.

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Final verdict:  If you were to ask me to sum up The Big Sick in word, though why would you do that?  I just wrote a whole review, that word would be authentic.  It makes sense since this is a true story written by the people who actually lived the events and even starring one of them as himself, but it can’t be expressed strongly enough how much that authenticity adds to the power of the film’s message and story.  This summer is handing audiences an overabundance of great movies to see.  Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Baby Driver are films still showing that I strongly recommend.  The Big Sick is a film that doesn’t need to be seen on a big screen to be enjoyed as it is intensely intimate and devoid of spectacle, but it stands with, and even above those others when it comes to story and message.  This may not be a must see in the theater if you have a limited budget, but it is a must see, and it would be great for as many as possible to see it in the theaters to send Hollywood the message to give us more like this.  If you need even more incentive to see The Big Sick, though, it’s made this cynic believe at least for a little while that love truly can conquer all, just not necessarily with a lot of fanfare.

 

La La Land (Chazelle; 2016)

A reputation of Los Angeles is that it is the city where foolish dreamers go to come face to face with harsh reality.  In the pre-credit sequence of La La Land, we are shown a bumper to bumper traffic jam, then the music starts and the commuters are now getting out of their cars, singing and dancing making the best of a lousy situation.  A 1940’s style carefree fantasy meets with the reality of modern annoyance.  This is the glitz, glamour, and misfortune which makes up La La Land.

La La Land is the story of two people who came to Los Angeles because they have a dream.  Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl from a small town who wants nothing more than to become a big time actress, and Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has lived in L.A. his whole life and wants to start his own club so he can give the music he loves a resurgence in a world that has forgotten it for the most part.  The two meet and eventually fall in love, though it’s more obvious to everyone else, audience most certainly included, that they already love each other before they themselves realize it.  If this sounds familiar, it is meant to.  The brilliance of La La Land is not that it gives you an obviously brand new story the likes of which you’ve never seen before, but that it gives you an age old, well worn story with a twist that makes all the difference in the message it wants to say.  The 1940’s story and tropes mixed with a story taking place in the modern era is more than just a stylistic decision, it’s a metaphor.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not actually real people.  They, too, are metaphors.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of my favorite younger working actors in Hollywood today, and I loved them both in this movie.   While Gosling gives an excellent performance and his electrifying chemistry with Stone is what makes the movie work, Stone’s performance is a true tour-de-force.  Her multi-layered performance makes the fantastic realistic and the surreal grounded.  When I say La La Land combines both the dreams and the reality the city is known for perfectly, a huge part of that combination realizes itself in Stone’s nearly perfect performance.  Even when her voice occasionally isn’t entirely up to snuff in a few of her more difficult songs, you think that it is more a choice than a weakness, that a break in her voice isn’t a mistake so much as a decision to have her character let her guard down for just a moment.  For his part, Gosling is also excellent, and he learned piano for this movie, and when I say learned I don’t mean he can plunk out a few notes to get through a scene, he gives some virtuoso level performances here.

The music and the musical numbers, of course, have to be talked about.  What we are given continues the metaphor impeccably, the jazz music and Fred Astaire style numbers mixed with modern settings, dance moves, and singing styles work on every level and elevate what was in danger of being cornball to gloriously creative, catchy, and invigorating.  Even the methods of breaking into song bring a new spin on the old, as occasionally, such as in the above mentioned opening scene, the characters do just break into a song and dance number out of nowhere, but sometimes the more modern technique of naturally breaking into song since many of our characters are musicians by profession is the method of getting into a musical number.  Both methods work, neither seems out of place, and this is a huge credit to director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for being able to pull not only this tough balancing act off, but the balancing act which is this entire movie.

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Chazelle isn’t the only one who can balance.

The art direction and camera work in La La Land just add to the many other already impeccable elements in this film.  Linus Sandgren, the director of cinematography, captures the city, the stars, and the action at their most beautiful and gives us a true glamour piece while never forgetting that the movie is self aware enough to know that the glamour can be very much illusion and knows when to let the feeling that what we are watching is not altogether real sneak through at just the right times.  Classic musical filming techniques are largely on display here, but we also see some very stylized modern camera work, and a bit of what can only be described as live stage performance visuals, the camera doing what it can to capture what it would be like to be seeing this story in person.  All of this works, all is subtle, and most of all it all work to enhance the emotional core of what makes La La Land such an experience.

La La Land is not only a masterpiece, not only one of the best movies of the year, but it is one of the greatest love stories to Hollywood ever captured because it’s not just about Hollywood, but the entire human experience and one of the greatest musicals ever made.  The core of the movie is emotion, and you will run the entire of gamut throughout this movie.  You will be thrilled, joyous, awed, and you will have your heart stomped and beaten at times, as well.  But, once you are done with the emotional experience, you will also see that this was an incredibly smart and intellectual movie as well.  What La La Land has to say about chasing dreams is unlike what any other film before it has had to say, and the message is at once optimistic and grounding.  I recommend this film to absolutely everyone.  If you are the type who says they hate musicals, see this anyway, after La La Land you can then say you hate musicals except for this one.  It really is that spectacular that it will make converts.

Rating:  9.6 out of 10