The Big Sick (2017) – Film Review

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Rom-coms are often dismissed as ‘guilty pleasures’ and fail to get much critical recognition, so it’s nice to see that this one has reversed the trend. As someone who believes that the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’ should’ve been binned the very moment that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden (or the moment that western countries spurned Christian cultural hegemony, take your pick), I say if you like something, then you should say it loud and like it proud.

So yes, I like rom-coms: Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, Four Weddings and a Funeral, (500) Days of Summer… These are some of my most-cherished and -watched films; easygoing, yet with more than a smidgeon of bite, like an autumn breeze or a chilled cocktail.

And when I ask myself why I like rom-coms so much, the answer always comes easily: romance and comedy, a.k.a. laughs, are two of the things that most make life worth living. Woody Allen admits as much in that famous scene in Manhattan, and so in its own way does The Big Sick.

Comedy and romance intertwine with refreshing ease in The Big Sick, and both are elements that combine to threaten the traditional Muslim values of Kumail Nanjiani’s family in the film. Kumail is a Pakistani living in Chicago, in his own flat, but beholden to his parents, who live close by and try to set him up with a new Pakistani woman every time he comes for dinner, and who also believe that he eventually intends to enroll in law school. Law being a respectable trade, unlike the stand-up career he so craves, and arranged marriage to Pakistani women being a continuation of their culture, unlike the dating of a nerdy white chick called Emily, with whom he quickly falls in love.

The ‘guilty pleasures’ of comedy and romance in Kumail’s life are therefore kept a secret from his parents, just as we are supposed to keep the ‘guilty pleasure’ of liking rom-coms to ourselves.

Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself (this is largely a true story), is too smart and decent to really believe that he should be guilty about any of his pleasures, which of course is why he’s made a movie about them. But he’s also decent enough to worry about the ways in which his parents might hurt if they found out. Of course these secrets are partly selfish though, because he doesn’t want to lose his parents or his freedom, and unwittingly these secrets might be damaging his otherwise healthy relationship with Emily (played admirably by Zoe Kazan – unusually for a male-directed rom-com, we get a strong sense of why she likes him).

Then the film takes a darker turn, with Kumail and Emily separating, shortly before she falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail admirably chooses to stay by her side throughout treatment, but this leads to a hospitalised Meet the Parents scenario as her mother (Holly Hunter, excellent as always) and father (Ray Romano, amusing or alarming?) air their own dirty laundry in front of him, whilst they all wait to see if Emily will ever recover.

This adds a bittersweet tinge to the usual Judd Apatow Productions antics: yes there’s lots of swearing, frank sexual talk and bodily fluids gags, mindless chatter. But there’s also a genuine, unforced tenderness exuding from these oddballs in love, particularly the way in which Kumail dutifully attends his beau in her time of need, and when he’s least wanted.

The film also tackles Islamophobia, at least in passing, and has a good stab at examining the ways in which lack of trust can sweep toxically through a relationship. So it’s meaningful, as well as frequently very funny (if never laugh-out-loud). Which altogether allows one to forgive the usual Judd Apatow-affiliated problems, from issues with pacing in the third act to one-dimensional supporting characters (leading to accusations of the film having an issue with Muslim women, which I think are overstated).

I don’t think this will have the endless replay value of any of the other rom-coms I’ve mentioned above. But it’s nevertheless a charming, engaging, and exceptionally likeable ride. I would’ve called it the best Apatow production since Bridesmaids, had I not recently caught the series Love on Netflix – check The Big Sick out first, then proceed to that little gem, if you haven’t already.

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Margo Price: Weakness (2017) – Album Review

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Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the most promising country debut of last year: warm, sincere, literate, open, and very well crafted. Now she opens up this four-track quickie EP with: ‘Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf/Sometimes I’m James Dean’. With that, I’m sold. Interestingly, despite being only 15 minutes, Weakness sees her stretching out, particularly in the 6 minute ‘Paper Cowboy’, which starts off as a subdued 3/4 waltz dirge and finishes as a stonking 4/4 jam session in which her band show off their chops: the bass carefully goosesteps around some ace pedal steel guitar lines (from Luke Schneider) and solos that come straight at you out of 70s classic rock and 60s psychedelia. It surely is a lot of fun, and complemented by the title track’s more conventional country lament set to a rollicking tune, it sets up a promising outlook to Price’s future projects. Undermined slightly by ‘Just Like Love’, a far from invigorating number produced with a melancholy quietude that sadly exposes Price’s vocal lack of subtlety – she should do some research on Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, and Sunny Sweeney, to find out how these minor-key moments can be done properly. Which is only to say that in this killer time for country ladies, perhaps the greatest ever, Price will need to step up her game in order to stand out. But then the final track, ‘Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)’, convinces me that she might have a fair shot: a piano-led tribute to a friend of hers who died of cancer, a 28 year-old drummer, which through tiny inflections manages to mediate a sense of loss whilst bypassing histrionics. It’s a keenly felt moment that tells us much about death. Perhaps as much as the tragedies of Virginia Woolf or James Dean, two sad lives I hope Price will never really try to emulate.

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Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017) – Album Review

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This is the best Randy Newman album since 2008’s Harps and Angels – which is not saying much, seeing as Harps and Angels was his last album. But it’s also saying a lot: that Randy Newman is nothing short of the most consistent albums artist of his generation, biding his time and releasing near-perfect works once a decade for the benefit of us who know him for more than just the Pixar soundtracks that have made his fortune.

It opens with three of his all-time greatest satires. First up is the 8 minute display of genius ‘The Great Debate’, in which science is put up on trial against religion and comes out losing 3-0 because, and this joke kills every time, a gospel choir keeps butting in to declare: ‘I’ll take Jesus every time!’ And when Mr. Randy Newman himself, a long-standing and well-known atheist, is called to the stand and accused of using straw men arguments in his songs to mock religion… well, I can’t quite convey how ingenious the comic value is, you must simply hear it for yourself. Then comes ‘Brothers’, with the novel idea that John and Bob Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs in order to rescue Celia Cruz and bring her back to America, perhaps a little like the slave trader who wanted to rescue poor Africans in ‘Sail Away’. And then there’s ‘Putin’, which mocks that awful leader with a precision that becomes all the sharper if you listen to it whilst browsing through these recently released macho photos of him on holiday in Siberia. ‘Makes me wanna be a lady!’ indeed.

As is par for the course with any new Randy Newman album, the somewhat grotesque satires that adorn Dark Matter have been met with bafflement by some (there are people who still believe that ‘Short People’ is a genuine attack on midgets), which is excusable for casual listeners, but for critics who get paid to listen closely it’s unforgivable. This review in The Observer really irked me, complaining that ‘Putin’ ‘pokes way too gentle fun at Russia’s dark lord’, which makes me wonder if they noticed the line ‘He can power a nuclear reactor/With the left side of his brain’ at all, but also demonstrates their lack of understanding of the way in which Newman’s best songs work. Like a good Louis Theroux documentary, they seek to humanise monstrous men, including racists and misogynists and slave traders, so as to get our brains actively questioning any assumptions we might hold about them, without ever denying their essential awfulness. We want to know why his characters are bad people, not to be told that they’re bad people, which would be the sign of a lesser songwriter.

Worse, there’s this misreading of ‘The Great Debate’ on Exclaim: ‘The whole thing is musically scattershot, and only follows a logical thread if you can entangle where Newman is being earnest and where he’s not’. Newman’s earnestness is really irrelevant: like any great satirist from Jonathan Swift to Trey Parker/Matt Stone, he deliberately obscures where he’s coming from in order to skewer the pretensions of both sides of the argument at hand, in this case science vs. religion. Good satire shouldn’t take sides, at least not overtly – that’s for propaganda.

Accusing it of being ‘musically scattershot’ meanwhile is no less simple-minded. Really that should be changed to ‘musically complex’, and I’m sure you’d agree that musical complexity is no bad thing when the complexities massage the jokes and tease out hidden ironies. As they do all over Dark Matter, for example when an Americanised version of Cuban dance music strikes up as the Kennedys start yapping on about Celia Cruz on ‘Brothers’. Or when the Putin Girls pop up as backup singers to prop up the leader’s tenuous ego on his song. Or when ‘The Great Debate’ switches from Dixieland jazz to church hymnals and back again as the argument zips from secular to religious. The arrangements are without doubt some of the most complex of Newman’s career, but unlike that Exclaim writer I found disentangling them to be a constant reward, because nearly every time there was an outstanding joke behind every choice.

Elsewhere across the most consistent album of the year (so far): there’s an amazing real-life tale about blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, whose identity was stolen after he was murdered; there’s a rerecorded version of a so-so theme tune to 2003 detective series Monk; there’s a poignant love song that sounds like a present tense rewrite of Toy Story 2’s ‘When She Loved Me’. They all dispel the notion, in case anyone still believed it, that Newman’s merely a one-trick-pony ironist.

If Dark Matter‘s not as passionate as Good Old Boys, or as precise as 12 Songs, there’s still more than enough here to keep us busy unpacking until the next release. Which according to the current work schedule will be in 2026, when the great man’s 82 years old. I can’t wait to discover what new insights he will have uncovered by then.

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