(Google Play Streaming, November 2018) As a genre, the romantic comedy will never die as long as it adapts to the times, keeps finding intriguing hooks and invests in its characters. The Big Sick is a surprisingly engaging example of the form, showing us contemporary romance, likable characters and an irresistible hook: What if a recently-formed couple faced the impending death of one of them? That may not be a funny premise in itself, but don’t worry: everybody gets better in the end. Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan are well cast as the lead couple—Nanjiani even playing his own role given that the story is loosely adapted from his own life. The cross-cultural courtship themes abruptly shift gear into more dramatic material once one of the romantic leads goes into a coma, although the appearance of their parents (great performances by a high-energy Holly Hunter—who gets the film’s best scene—and an unusually likable Ray Romano) add more complications to the proceedings. Since the film revolves around a stand-up comedian, expect a few one-liners and glimpses at the tough life of these performers. The good script is backed by strong execution that manages to find a balance between very tricky material. It manages to combine modern cynicism with earned sincerity, and wraps things up with a belated but no less effective bow. There’s been a lot of hype about The Big Sick as an independent film darling, and it admirably sustains it during viewing.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) I have an obvious soft spot for movies about writers, so it didn’t take much to get me interested in this story in which a novelist so powerfully imagines a love interest character that she shows up the next day. Everything he writes is reflected in her, and it doesn’t take a long time for the goofy romance to cede ground to weightier matters. Never mind the theme of authorship and dealing with one’s characters: as a Pygmalion-inspired meditation on control within relationships, Ruby Sparks works well and culminates in a hair-raising sequence of existentialist horror. Fortunately, it’s not where the film ends, and the satisfying wrap-up is enough to bring back the film in the romantic-comedy genre. Paul Dano is good in a role that requires us to find the protagonist annoying, sympathetic and even despicable at times. But it’s Zoe Kazan who steals the show as the eponymous Ruby, turning in a vivid performance in the middle of a film that she has written. It’s not an easy role as the character is artificially manipulated to and from self-determination, in-between polar emotional states. (There’s something trivially interesting in knowing that the film’s lead couple is also a couple in real-life.) While Ruby Sparks may be a bit too low-key to earn much attention in an age of blockbusters, the high-concept premise is executed with wit and charm, touching upon a variety of themes (just the material on male insecurity within relationships is enough for an entire movie) while keeping a sharp focus on the characters. It’s an intensely likable film despite a few intensely unpleasant moments and is well-worth a bit of time –doubly so for would-be novelists.