Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls

The Aeronauts


Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon…

(2019) Adventure (AmazonFelicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Courtenay, Himesh Patel, Phoebe Fox, Lewin Lloyd, Vincent Perez, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front, Anne Reid, Robert Glenister, Julian Ferro, Gian Kalch, Mia Hemmerling, Kamil Lemieszewski, Thomas Arnold, Steve Saunders, John Taylor, James Daniel Wilson, Guy Samuels, Fran Targ, Zander James, Elsa Alili. Directed by Tom Harper

 

We sometimes envy the birds, soaring free above the bounds of the ground, winging their way on the currents of the atmosphere, seeing our planet from a perspective we could never really understand. We have sought to control the air, learning to fly with balloons before eventually creating the airplane and consequently shrinking our planet.

In 1862 that was far away. While balloonists regularly performed exhibitions, aeronauts (as they were referred to as back then) were not taken too seriously as much more than performers. James Glaisher (Redmayne), who believed that studying the upper atmosphere would allow us to better understand weather patterns and eventually allow us to predict the weather, wants to go up higher than any other balloonist ever has. The Royal Science Academy basically thinks he’s cracked but he does find a taker in Amy Wren (Jones).

Wren is about as unconventional as a woman could get in the Victorian era. She makes grand entrances riding on the top of carriages, stuns her onlookers by throwing her beloved Jack Russell terrier out of the balloon (don’t worry folks – the pup has a parachute) and is apt to do cartwheels on the stage. Glaisher finds all of this distasteful and distracting from the scientific endeavor he is undertaking, but he needs a pilot and Wren is, like it or not, his bird.

Once they get airborne, they realize that their task is going to be much more difficult than they first thought, particularly since they manage to soar right into a thunderstorm. They have already overcome much adversity to begin with – Amy dealing with the awful death of her husband, Glaisher with the deteriorating mental state of his father and the ridicule of his peers. If they can learn to rely on each other they might just figure out that they have the skills to survive.

This is (very) loosely based on real events – not a single ascent, but rather several ascents. However, a great deal of liberty has been taken with history, although that’s nothing new for the movies. While I love Felicity Jones as an actress, her character is extremely improbable for the times she lives in. On the way to the record-breaking ascent, she orders the carriage to stop and gets out, plopping her butt down on the curb with ankles and calves on full display – and nobody pays attention. In 1862, the sight of a woman’s calf would have been scandalous. Felicity accentuates the girl’s spunk, but she certainly doesn’t seem a product of her times which I suppose fits right in with modern narratives.

Redmayne, who the last time he was paired with Jones won an Oscar, is curiously restrained here. I realize he’s supposed to be a stuffy scientist but he’s almost inert. Given his usual on-screen charm, it’s almost shocking how leaden his performance is here. This is not the Eddie Redmayne that we usually get to see. I suppose everyone is entitled to an off-film.

The action sequences are for the most part well-staged and Jones holds her own as an action hero, just as she did in Rogue One. This is the kind of adventure movie that went out of vogue with the advent of the anti-hero 70s, and has never really come back. However, before you classic movie fans begin to celebrate, this isn’t nearly as good as some of the films you remember. However, this is a solid piece of entertainment that while it doesn’t hold a candle to such films as The African Queen, for example, it nonetheless should hold even a casual movie fan’s interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelously staged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nonsensical and anachronistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences of extreme peril as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although James Glaisher was a real person who was a pioneer in meteorology, Amelia Wren is a fictional character albeit one based on actual women. Glaisher did indeed set a record for highest ascent in a balloon in 1862 but his partner, Henry Coxwell, was decidedly male.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Around the World in 80 Days
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
22-July

The Report


Going through millions of pages in government reports could turn anybody into Kylo Ren.

(2019) True Life Drama (AmazonAdam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Victor Slezak, Guy Boyd, Alexander Chaplin, Joanne Tucker, Ian Blackman, Tim Blake Nelson, Fajer Kaisi, Scott Shepherd, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, April Rogalski. Directed by Scott Z. Burns

 

As Americans, we have always held ourselves to certain standards. We are strong, true and follow the law. We do the right thing. There came a time though, that our self-image took a pounding.

Young Daniel Jones (Driver) is ambitious, ready to keep America safe after 9/11. He was anxious to make a difference the best way he could – behind the scenes as a Congressional aide. When Senator Diane Feinstein (Bening) asks him to look into recordings of interrogations that the CIA had reportedly destroyed, he uncovered something terrible; evidence that the CIA was torturing prisoners for information.

Calling the effort “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” or EIT, the program was put in place by a pair of contractors with backgrounds in psychology and the military. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that the two men had never conducted an interrogation before, or that evidence was strong that torture almost never yielded any actionable intelligence. The program went on and keeping it covered up seemed to be the main focus.

Jones and a small team of researchers worked in a basement office in a CIA satellite office for five years, working crazy hours going through more than six million pages of documents. Despite reluctance by the CIA and certain segments of Congress, Jones pressed and pressed until he uncovered the shocking truth.

The story is an important one, one that is especially relevant these days. Not every important story makes a good movie, however; much of what happened involved researchers sitting in front of a computer screen in a jail cell-like atmosphere. The dramatic tension here is not very strong. It doesn’t help that Burns doesn’t really develop Jones much as a character; we never see much of his personality except for that he’s driven and almost obsessive. He’s passionate about what he’s looking for and sometimes gets frustrated when others don’t share his outrage.

Bening and Driver are both outstanding actors and they don’t disappoint here. Driver is definitely in a much more different kind of role than we’re used to from him and it’s a good fit. I’m impressed by his versatility as an actor and he really stretches himself here. Bening is an actress who doesn’t always get the due she deserves; she probably won’t get a ton of accolades for her performance here but she really brings Feinstein’s personality to the forefront; that’s not surprising considering the two are friends in real life. Good casting is important in any cinematic endeavor.

I can see where those who are politically conservative might not like this much; the Conservatives don’t come up covered in glory here. Still, it’s an important story about how easy it is for the way to be lost, and how wanting to preserve our security can sometimes lead to compromising our soul. It’s a chilling tale and one that needs to be committed to memory.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story chilling in its implications. Strong performances by Driver and Bening.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overall the movie is a bit more underwhelming than the story deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing depictions of torture, violence, plenty of profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Daniel J. Jones attended the film’s world premiere at Sundance and received a standing ovation from the audience.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zero Dark Thirty
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Last Color

Brittany Runs a Marathon


You can’t move forward if you’re just standing still.

(2019) Dramedy (AmazonJillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howley, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Erica Hernandez, Adam Sietz, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day, Kate Arrington, Beth Malone, Esteban Benito, Nadia Quinn, Juri Henley-Cohn, Peter Vack, Gene Gabriel, Sarah Bolt, Ian Unterman, Frances Eve. Directed by Paul Downs Collaizo

 

We have become more aware of our health than perhaps ever before. Here in America, despite the epidemic of obesity and its attendant health issues, we have become more aware of what we eat, how we exercise and generally what kind of shape we’re in.

Brittany (Bell) does none of those things. She works taking tickets at an off-Broadway theater and spends her nights drinking, hanging out with her friends and essentially being the fat best friend, to use a movie cliché. She goes to see a doctor (based on his Yelp rating) hoping to get him to prescribe Adderall; instead, he gives her a wake-up call. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are dangerously high as is her Body Mass Index. Her liver is beginning to get enough fatty deposits to be worrisome. In short, her doc (Darragh) advises her to lose 50 pounds pronto and make some serious life style changes.

That’s not necessarily an easy task for Brittany, who is used to making fun of people who exercise. Going to the gym is out of the question; she can’t afford even the most basic gym membership. However, as she notes to an obsequious gym owner, running outside is still free so Brittany digs out a ratty old sports bra and a pair of sneakers that have seen better days and prepares to make a quick run down the block.

She makes friends with fellow runners Catherine (Watkins) who is undergoing an ugly divorce and runs to take her mind off of things, and Seth (Stock), a married gay man who wants to get more fit so he can keep up with his kids. Brittany begins to take to running and gets it into her head that she wants to run the New York City Marathon. She convinces Seth and Catherine to train for it with her.

Brittany begins to transform. She loses weight and feels better physically. She stands up to her former roommate Gretchen (Lee), a bitchy judgmental Instagram influencer who constantly demeans Brittany and moves into the mansion of the couple whom she is dog-sitting for while they are away on an extended vacation. Already moved in is Jern (Ambudkar) – yes you read the name right – a feckless Millennial with all the ambition of a potato and not even of the couch variety. Jern is interested in a maybe romantic relationship but Brittany is not so sure.

As the pounds melt off, something odd happens – all the self-loathing and self-doubt that she has felt most of her life haven’t melted away with it. She resents anyone who wants to help her, distrusting their motivations. Brittany may not be Olympic material as a runner, but she is world-class when it comes to pushing people away. Soon enough she ends up living with her older sister (Arrington) in Philadelphia along with her brother-in-law (Howley) who is more of a father figure to her. Brittany’s dreams of running the New York marathon look to be in jeopardy.

This is most definitely a female empowerment film, although not the usual kind. For one thing, Brittany’s physical changes don’t necessarily coincide with attitude adjustments; she still has all the insecurities she’s always had and her sense of humor can be occasionally cruel. Brittany isn’t always a likable person, but thanks to Bell’s charismatic performance you still end up rooting for her to succeed. As kind of an odd aside, I found myself distracted by Bell’s resemblance to actress Cameron Diaz. I ended up chiding myself for being so shallow when it comes to reviewing a movie which is about inner beauty more than outer but it is noticeable enough that I had to mention it.

Writer-director Collaizo based the story on his experiences with his own best friend who underwent a similar transformation. I don’t know what the real Brittany thought of the movie – it isn’t always flattering to her – but she does end up kind of heroic and inspirational in spite of that. You can sense the affection Collaizo holds for the real Brittany throughout. He also wisely keeps the audience guessing as to where the movie is going to go up until the end, but sadly finishes with a pure Hollywood ending that is disappointing but not enough to affect the rating too much.

Brittany’s journey isn’t always an easy one and thus neither is it always for the audience either. Still, the movie has an abundance of charm going for it, a star performance by Bell and some nice skewering of our self-indulgent, self-centered society. There’s definitely some meat on the bones here, but with enough entertainment value to make for a pleasant meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Was never sure where this was going to lead us. You wind up rooting for Brittany despite her occasional bitchiness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug content and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell lost 40 pounds during the course of filming the movie, just as her character does in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Run, Fatboy, Run
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chained For Life

One Child Nation (Born in China)]


This is NOT a wanted poster!

(2018) Documentary (Amazon) Nanfu Wang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Tunde Wang, Xianven Liu, Huaru Yuan, Jiaoming Pang, Shuangjie Xeng, Brian Stuy, Long Lan Stuy, Shuquin Jiang, Peng Wang, Zaou, Yang. Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

China is the most populous nation on Earth with over a billion people and counting. Back in 1979, they sought to address their overpopulation problem by setting a “one child” policy, limiting families to only one child. It sounds sensible on paper but things rarely work out in reality the way they do on paper.

For one thing, Chinese tradition values male children over female; many families would have a female baby and then abandon the baby so that they could try again to have a male child. Other female babies would be put up for adoption, with the adoptive parents being led to believe that the children were orphans when in fact their parents were alive and well.

As policing the policy became more problematic, enforcement became a little more brutal. Families that had second children would receive visits from government agents who would forcibly take the additional children out of the home. Women would be sterilized following the birth of their first child. Forced abortions were performed, to the tune of 40 to 50 thousand of them according to Huaru Yuan, a Chinese midwife from that period.

American filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were both born under the one child policy, although their parents had emigrated to the United States afterwards. Wang was unusual in that her parents received dispensation to have a second child, something that was highly unusual at the time so Wang was often teased at school because she had a little brother.

For the film, Wang traveled back to the rural Chinese village where her family was from. She interviewed family and neighbors about the policy which was finally rescinded in 2015 although now the official policy is a two-child restriction. She reviews the propaganda (which was relentless) and the stories go from heartbreaking to horrifying.

The power of the movie develops in kind of a slow burn despite initial images of aborted fetuses and of Chinese military might; as to the latter, I think the ability to wage war is far less impressive than the ability to make peace but what do I know – but then again, the Chinese have not known war in 60 years. Certainly America, which has only known peace for a total of sixteen years of its entire existence doesn’t know much about making peace it would seem.

I was aware of the policy before watching the film and I always felt somewhat uneasy about it – how is something like that enforced? I remember hearing that the Chinese government was having a tough time enforcing the policy in rural parts of their vast country and the movie seems to bear that out. However, the human toll of enforcement is what this film is all about and at times it is staggering.

The ripples continue to be felt today. American adoptees are not eager to meet their Chinese families, sometimes refusing altogether and their American adoptive parents are understandably nervous that the children they raised will be forcibly returned to China. In the case of twin sisters separated by this cruel policy they were very wary when an agency discovered their Chinese family. Both agreed to communicate but at the moment there’s no question of them meeting. The Chinese half of the siblings wants a normal relationship with her sister but her twin isn’t ready for it. It makes the situation awkward but it’s hard not to feel for the American sister who suddenly has to come to terms that she has a twin while the Chinese sister was aware that there was once a twin. Politicians are never that concerned with the human fallout from their whims, caprices and policies but even those meant with the best of intentions can end up with devastating consequences to those affected.

REASONS TO SEE: It starts slowly but grows more powerful during the course of the film. The human cost of the one child policy is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The evolution from a highly personal family movie to a more general issue film isn’t a smooth one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Florida Film Festival regulars will remember Nanfu Wang’s first film Hooligan Sparrow which received great acclaim during its festival run and later on a limited release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in China
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Princess of the Row

Cold War (Zimna wojna)


Love and war are often indistinguishable.

(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

 

We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.

In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.

One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.

As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.

But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.

The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.

The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.

Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.

Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Golem

The Big Sick


Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in happier times.

(2017) Romantic Dramedy (Amazon/Lionsgate) Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jeremy Shamos, David Allen Grier, Ed Herbstman, Linda Emond, Shenaz Treasurywala, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kuhoo Verma, Mitra Jourhari, Celeste Arias. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

The path to love is a rocky one. There is so much to overcome to make a relationship work. Sometimes there are situational things, other times cultural things and any other numbers of things that can conspire to keep two individual people from making that permanent connection.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comic struggling to make it. He drives for Uber to make ends meet. He was born in Pakistan and came to Chicago as a boy. His parents, both conservative traditionalists, wish to arrange a marriage for their son and his mother (Shroff) in particular manages to arrange for young single Pakistani women to “drop by” whenever Kumail visits their suburban home. But it is a white woman, Emily Gardner (Kazan) that Kumail falls in love with.

Things go well for awhile until she realizes that he has avoided introducing her to his parents and in fact hasn’t even told them about her. He tries to explain to her that their relationship doesn’t have a future; if he did marry her, his parents would likely cut all ties to him. The two break up but shortly thereafter Emily gets very sick to such a degree that doctors put her into a medially induced coma in order to fight the infection that is ravaging her body.

Kumail calls her parents and they fly in to sit vigil on their comatose daughter; feisty Beth (Hunter) and low-key Terry (Romano). They are both aware that their daughter and Kumail have broken up and are frankly surprised when Kumail offers to stay with them, Beth downright hostile. Nonetheless Kumail comes every day to wait with them as the days stretch on and Emily comes no closer to being cured.  Kumail begins to bond with the parents as his own attitudes towards love and marriage begin to shift.

This is based on the actual courtship between Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon  who co-wrote the script with her husband. While some events are fictional (the real Emily and Kumail never broke up prior to her illness), the main points actually happened and thus there’s an air of authenticity to the relationship between the onscreen Kumail and Emily that is refreshing.

The movie strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humor without leaning overly much in either direction, so as the kids today put it, you get all the feels. The performances from Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are all top notch; Kazan spends half of the movie in a coma (well, her character does anyway) but she lights up the screen in the time that she’s awake.

Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie are the cultural differences. When Nanjiani talks about arranged marriage, he quips “Or as we call it in Pakistan, marriage” and it’s truly hard for an American to wrap one’s head around the concept. The family dynamic in Kumail’s onscreen family is fascinating and I wish they’d spent a little more time with them, but as it was I think the movie was just beginning to edge into the “a bit too long” category.

This is everything you’d want a romantic comedy to be and more. It is easily one of the best movies of the year and one well worth seeking out to stream or even buy. This is a couple you can root for, a movie that avoids clichés or at worst turns them on their heads. It is a movie that reminds us that even the most ingrained of cultural ideas can be overcome for the sake of love and that’s a very powerful message in a time when it feels like we’re divided so much by cultural differences.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a perfect mix between comedy and pathos. The performances by Romano, Nanjiani and Hunter are outstanding. The film captures the hyper-competitive camaraderie between stand-up comics nicely. This is a perfect conversation starter for cultural issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses a little bit of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nanjiani’s real life wife Emily Gordon (whom Emily Gardner is based on) can be seen in the final comedy club scene sitting near CJ and Mary.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: (500) Days of Summer
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Homecoming