PARK CITY, UTAH: Sure, many of the best comedies are personal, using the filmmakers’ own lives and personalities as a launching point; Woody Allen made a whole career out of it (and then denying that his work was autobiographical at all, go figure). But The Big Sick is, in many ways, an outright dramatization of how stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon met, fell in love, and sort of continued to do so while she was in a medically-induced coma. Nanjiani doesn’t even bother giving his character a different name; he knows he’s not fooling anyone. But that authenticity and candor is part of what makes The Big Sick shine so brightly – it’s got the lived-in coziness and complicated wit of a James L. Brooks movie. But, y’know, one of the good ones, like Terms of Endearment or Broadcast News (whose leading lady Holly Hunter shows up here, and her warmth remains blinding).
It also has, miracle of miracles, an equally funny female co-lead (female writers matter!), the kind of character who can insist, “I’m not that kind of girl, I only have sex once on the first date,” or cheerfully jab, when Kumail sits her down to show her one of his favorite movies, “I love it when men test me on my taste.” Among other achievements, The Big Sick confirms that there’s basically nothing Zoe Kazan can’t do; she’s so sincere, and funny, and truthful, and when she tearfully asks Kumail, “Can you imagine a world in which we end up together,” she tears your heart out.
The trouble in their relationship comes not from her medical woes, but from his familial ones; his Pakistani parents are insisting on the traditional arranged marriage, and they’ll disown him if he doesn’t go along. This makes them sound like a drag, but their family dinner table scenes are spirited and funny – and refreshing, as they present the picture of a normal Muslim family, which shouldn’t seem revolutionary, but here we are. (I will also tell you that there’s a 9/11 joke which produced one of the single longest sustained laughs I’ve ever heard in a theater.)
Anyway, the situation gets real scary real fast, as these things often do – but just when the movie can’t get any better, Hunter and Ray Romano show up as Emily’s parents. The tension between their characters and Nanjiani’s (and between the parents themselves) is by turns intense, funny, and tough; it’s the most unpredictable section of the film, because you’re not quite sure where they’re going, which frees up some of the best character beats and interactions. The Big Sick is a lovely piece of work, sweet and very funny, and if I’ve seen a movie here with real breakout potential, it’s this one.
Literary adaptations are tricky, and I’m willing to bet that when Dee Rees and Virgil Williams set about writing the screenplay for Rees’s film version of Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound, they worried about the narration. The book is told from the shifting perspectives of the six key characters (three white, three black); that’s the kind of thing that can work on the page but leave us stranded in the weeds on film. But they kept it, and it’s invaluable. The shifting narration allows multiplicity of agency – it’s no single person’s story, so it’s not told from any single perspective.
It’s the story of two families: the Jacksons, a black family of tenant farmers that work a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, and the McAllens, the white family that owns the land. Both send a young man to fight in WWII, and both men return feeling the shivers of what was not yet called PTSD. They end up quietly bonding over the shared experience of war, loss, and fear, forming a friendship that’s warm and genuine and, ultimately, doomed. For young Ronsel Jackson (the superb Jason Mitchell) experiences the disconnect of so many black soldiers, who returned from a Europe that didn’t treat them as second class citizens, and wondered why they were fighting for a country that did. “Over there, I was a liberator,” Ronsel shrugs. “Here, I’m just another nigger pushin’ a plow.”
Mudbound is staggeringly good, episodic without feeling disjointed, literary but undeniably cinematic. It’s lyrical and evocative, yet dread-filled and terrifying; much of the latter feeling is provided by the moody score and Rachel Morrison’s bravura cinematography. She often shoots in close, but her camera occasionally goes wide, emphasizing the big blue sky above these characters. It’s so open, but day after day and year after year, it traps and crushes them. Rees’s first film, Pariah, was a small, bracing character study; here, she makes a sweeping period drama, and in one film has catapulted herself from a promising newcomer to a thrilling master filmmaker. You will hear quite a bit more about her, and her extraordinary film.
We’ve seen a new strain of star-driven indie over the past few years, particularly at Sundance but scattered across the festival landscape, that I hereby dub the Elder Appreciation Movie. In the EAM, a cherished older performer – usually either a character actor who didn’t do a lot of leads, or hasn’t done any in a good long while – is placed front and center in a low-key vehicle custom-made for their well-defined persona. (They also are an easy sell to what is, increasingly, independent cinema’s most reliable ticket-buying demo.) Hello, My Name is Doris leaps to mind; ditto Grandma. That film co-starred the great Sam Elliot, who also appeared in Blythe Danner’s EAM I’ll See You in My Dreams at Sundance 2015. And that film’s director, Brett Haley, is back this year with an EAM for Elliot.
It’s called The Hero, a title that applies both to protagonist Lee Hayden (Elliot) and the ‘70s Western movie that remains his biggest hit. These days, he mostly does voice-over work (“Lone Star BBQ sauce, the perfect partner for your chicken”), waits for jobs that don’t come in, and smokes weed with an old pal played by Nick Offerman. Elliott and Offerman make for an entertaining, unlikely comedy team – it’s almost like a competition to see who can underplay more – and I could frankly just watch the two of them hanging out and getting high for 90 minutes.
Alas, the movie mostly falls apart when it has to start putting an actual story together, presenting and resolving conflicts, that kinda thing. There’s a subplot with his semi-estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) that must end in a heartfelt reconciliation you’ve seen in a dozen other movies. There’s a romance with an uneasily younger woman (Laura Prepon, quite good in an impossible role) and a career clash that you’ll spot a mile away. And so on. But it also has Elliott, the kind of actor who can do half the work by just being present; he’s been in it so long, and has become so iconic, that he can relax completely and still pull us in. Twice in the movie – once in the middle as he watches an old clip, and again at the end, as he listens to a poem – Haley just lets his camera hold on Elliott’s face as he watches, listens, and feels. Man, that face. You just can’t beat it.
In Ry Russo-Young’s Before I Fall, a popular high school senior (Zoey Deutch) and her car full of friends are driving home from a party late one night. But they’re in a terrible car wreck, and she wakes up… in bed, at the beginning of that same day, but with full knowledge of its events. And she has to keep living the same day, over and over again.
It’s weird to borrow an easily-identifiable narrative gimmick this flagrantly – I mean, we’ve all seen Groundhog Day (and the script, adapted from Lauren Oliver’s YA novel, even borrows her series of strategies, conveyed in dreamy-voiced narration:”If that’s how it works, I’m gonna do whatever I want”; “If I was going to relive the same day over and over, I wanted it to be a worthy day”; “I knew what I had to do,” etc). It’s almost as if this were the result of one of those asinine pitch meetings at the beginning of The Player: “Okay, it’s Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls, but it’s a serious teen drama!” Not that it does the other half of that equation particularly well, either; one of our protagonist’s group of “baes” runs down their labels – bitch, slut, drama queen, rich girl – and the script rarely bothers to complicate them. So we’re stuck spending the same miserable day with the same insufferable people.
Matters aren’t helped any by the dialogue, which sounds like how much older people think teenagers talk, or the compendium of clichés that pile up on the sides of the frame: The teacher’s lecture with the direct thematic application (Sisyphus, in this case), a shout-out to the old “bird flapping its wings” chaos theory, the out-of-nowhere car accident. There are a few attempts at tension and emotion towards the end, but they’re mostly fraudulent. And Deutch is charismatic and present, but even she can’t save this dreck.
Our coverage continues tomorrow, with min-reviews of (most likely) Wind River, To the Bone, Wilson, and A Ghost Story.