The Big Sick

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
Profanity: Strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very serious illness
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Copyright Amazon 2017

The more specific the story, the more universal. This is a very specific story. Indeed, you are unlikely ever again to see a romantic comedy with one of the pair spending half of the film in a coma. And that is not the couple’s biggest obstacle. Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), plays a character named Kumail Nanjiani in a story based on his relationship to Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardiner in the film), who is now his wife and the co-screenwriter of the smart, touching, heartfelt and very funny film. It is beautifully directed by Michael Showalter, as always unsurpassed in meticulous casting of even the smallest roles.

Real-life Nanjiani and his movie alter ego are Pakistani immigrants from traditional families. Every time he visits his parents for dinner, an unmarried Pakistani woman “happens to drop in.” They have made it very clear that they expect him to marry a woman who is Pakistani and Muslim. Gordon is neither; she is white and from North Carolina. Just after they break up because he could not say that they could have a future together, she suddenly becomes critically ill and is placed in a medically induced coma.  He gets the call when she is hospitalized and has to be the one to call her parents. He meets them for the first time in the hospital waiting room, where they are understandably frosty (he broke their daughter’s heart) and preoccupied (she’s in a coma).

They would rather that he not be there. And his parents find out that he has not been honest with them and they tell him they cannot accept his feelings for Emily. So, in the second half of the movie there is another kind of love story, about the love between parents and their children and the partners their children choose.

It is also a story about a man learning to be honest with himself about who he is and what he wants. What lifts this out of the recent glut of arrested development movies is its compassion for all parties (the film nicely acknowledges that Nanjiani’s brother has a very successful and satisfying marriage arranged the traditional way and presents as one of the candidates a woman so seemingly perfect for him that we almost root for her) and Nanjiani’s thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident performance. The best stand-up comics mine their own lives for material, with observations that make us see our own lives, and especially our follies and irrationalities, in sharper relief — that’s relief in both senses of the word.

Best of all, the movie itself is proof that they lived happily ever after.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, family conflict, and very serious illness.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Kumail tell Emily about his family’s concerns? How should you decide what traditions to keep and which ones to leave behind?

If you like this, try: “Ruby Sparks” (also with Kazan, who wrote the screenplay) and “50-50” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, also based on a true story

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Maudie

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic content and brief sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, domestic abuse, illness, sad death
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2017

Maudie Lewis was severely disabled and abused. She lived in a tiny house with no electricity or running water in the unforgiving climate of Nova Scotia. And she decorated her tiny world with vibrant, joyful images that captivated the people who came to her door to buy them, usually for as little as $5. Her home, the walls covered with bright flowers and birds and cats painted over 35 years, is now seen by art lovers in the museum where it has been lovingly preserved, and she is recognized as one of the foremost “outsider” (untrained) artists of the mid-20th century.

In “Maudie,” the infinitely gifted Sally Hawkins gives an incandescent performance as the woman whose indomitable spirit shines through her art.

After her parents died, Maudie lived with an aunt who treated her with contempt. She left to take a job as a live-in housekeeper for Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a fisherman taciturn to the point of being a recluse. “You walk funny. Are you a cripple?” he asks bluntly. And he tells her that she comes after the dogs and the chickens in importance. And that he expects her to sleep in his bed as a part of the job. When he wants more, she tells him that he must marry her, and he does.

With some leftover house paint, holding the brush in her arthritic fingers, she paints a flower on the wall. And surprisingly, Everett does not disapprove; he only tells her to leave one section of the wall alone. A summer visitor from the US spots one of her paintings and brings it back to New York. Vice President Richard Nixon buys one, too. Everett is glad for the income and worried that Maudie will become independent and leave him.

Director Aisling Walsh insisted on filming on location and created a meticulous replica of the tiny Lewis home, and the setting itself, bleak and beautiful, with minimal musical score becomes a character in the film. So do Maudie’s pure, simple paintings, expressing her unquenchable joy in observing the world around her and in expressing what she sees. Hawkins is a marvel in every scene; like Maudie herself, she commits herself completely to the creative spirit.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and situations, references to out of wedlock child, mistreatment of disabled character, and a sad death. Characters drink and smoke.

Family discussion: Why did Everett tell Maudie not to paint one part of the wall? Why did he change his mind about selling the painting she said was not finished? What was happiness to Maudie?

If you like this, try: “The Straight Story”

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Interview: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on “The Big Sick”

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Emily V. Gordon wants you to know that her father did not cheat on her mother. You might think that he did because in the movie Gordon wrote with her husband, Kumail Nanjiani, about their romance, movie Emily’s father, played by Ray Romano, confesses that he had an affair. But Gordon and Nanjiani explained in an interview that the overall story is true, and Nanjiani plays himself, but some elements were compressed or heightened for dramatic purposes.

This part is true: Gordon met Nanjiani when she was in grad school studying psychology and he was a stand-up comic. Very early in their relationship, she suddenly became critically ill. This is probably the only romantic comedy in history to have its female lead spend half the movie in a medically induced coma. And that’s not even the couple’s biggest obstacle. Nanjiani’s Pakistani immigrant family wants him to marry a girl from their religion and culture. Gordon’s character, Emily Gardiner in the movie, is neither. He hasn’t told her about the parade of eligible girls his mother has “dropping by” the house when he is visiting his parents. Movie Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, breaks up with Nanjiani just before she gets sick, and then he meets her parents (Romano and Holly Hunter) for the first time at the hospital. The second half of the film is a different love story, between Nanjiani and Emily’s parents. “And then we get to really, really play and create these really fun people,” she said. “My parents are lovely but it would have been a more boring movie.”

“This is obviously very, very autobiographical,” Nanjiani continued. “I would say my character is probably closer to how I was then than Emily is.” “I would say your character is pretty clueless, and you’re not as clueless,” Gordon added. “We had a lot of fun arguments like: character Kumail is a lying asshole, but the real Kumail is just a liar.” “Yes, just a liar. And clueless. Judd would ask me what I thought was going to happen, what the plan was when I was dating Emily. And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.’” Gordon, whose terrifically funny and wise book Super You: Release Your Inner Superhero reflects her training as a therapist and her insight as a writer, said, clearly not for the first time, “Not deciding is a decision. People don’t realize that not making a decision is a decision in itself.”

Nanjiani and Gordon worked on the script for three years, sending drafts to Apatow, who guided them on tempo and character. “We would write down the truth of things and then he would advise us: ‘You could really turn up the drama here, you can change the situation here and kind of make this resonate more.’ So we would show him what the truth was and then he would help us figure out ways to make it more cinematic, ways to make it more dramatic, more funny,” Nanjiani said. The biggest departure was in the portrayal of Gordon’s parents. Apatow was especially helpful in providing feedback on the story’s structure. “He was like: ‘this much will be Emily and Kumail, this much should be them separated, this much should be the hospital, this much should be the surgery.’ He just drew these lines separating each section and we took a picture of it. And then when Michael Showalter came on as director, he said, ‘Kumail in Emily’s room, that’s the center of the movie so everything has to come before come after it.’ So we moved everything around that point because that’s the point of no return. That’s when I realize that I’m in love with her and that I had made a huge mistake.”

Gordon described working with Showalter. “He’s all heart, that’s what’s great. And he wears all his emotions on his sleeve. That’s his strength in a way. He is so amazing to watch because he’s passionate and invested in the story. And he was always very open to collaboration. It wasn’t like he was ruling with an iron fist, ever. Everything felt like a collaboration. He had no ego about collaborating. That made me feel so safe and confident in giving him our story.” Nanjiani said that Showalter showed them how he was subtly using different color palettes for the different characters, even different camera movements. “And Mike is very good at guiding you between movements of the movie, with silence or just following a character for a little bit or whatever it, is he’s very, very adept at switching gears for the movie in a seamless way.” Showalter is especially gifted in casting even the smallest roles and because they shot in New York they were able to find superb performers from theater whose faces were not familiar to movie audiences.

Nanjiani said that writing the film helped him to appreciate and understand his parents’ reaction to his wanting to marry Gordon. “When people from a different culture come here you want to hold on to your own culture but you also want to be your own person. It’s a complicated thing and you do lose something going against the wishes of your parents and your culture. But ultimately it has to be a personal decision.”

Nanjiani is an experienced performer, including three seasons as Dinesh on “Silicon Valley.” But this role presented some new challenges for him, with some dramatic moments and with the difficulty of reliving some of his most painful experiences on camera.

“I hadn’t ever taken any acting classes so I started taking acting classes to sort of prepare for this. I just knew that there was this big thing coming up and it was going to be very difficult and challenging. I wanted to take some of the guesswork out of it because what I knew was comedy acting, where you can go on instinct and as long as it feels funny it works. I knew this was going to be different, especially separating the reality from the movie character and also dealing with some very painful memories. I wanted to get the tools to be able to go into different emotions because I knew that this was a very low budget movie and we had to learn work really fast. If I had to be sad in the scene knew I knew that I had to figure out how to do that like quickly.”

“And if may say,” added Gordon, “Old Kumail from the movie would not have done that. He just would have been like, ‘I’ll figure it out.’”

Originally published on Huffington Post.

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