Michael Showalter’s dramatic adaptation of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary about Tammy Faye Bakker and her entrepreneurial evangelistic husband Jim Bakker is fuelled by fantastic performances. Jessica Chastain declares her intentions (to be awesome!) in a single, long close-up that opens the film, and she doesn’t disappoint, giving one of the great turns of 2021. But Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of the deeply complicated Jim sneaks up on you; as Jim ages, Garfield’s interpretation grows more intriguing, sly and effective. This is a film that becomes more compelling as it goes, saving its best ammunition for acts two and three, and if you had pre-conceived notions of Tammy Faye – as I did – it’s an eye-opener.
* * * *
Pablo Larraín’s ‘fable inspired by a true tragedy’, fantastically and poetically imagining a version of three days over Christmas spent by Princess Diana at Sandringham, sits thematically comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside his Jackie from 2016. Both films intimately examine the most famous women in the world at the peak moments of their fame, and how that intense glare affects them. In Diana’s case, played exquisitely by Kristen Stewart, we are on the edge of existential despair and mental illness.
The film is stunning to look at and, with Jonny Greenwood’s score, dreamy, evocative and haunting. Indeed, at times it feels like a horror movie, a Polanski-like mental descent. Don’t come for any kind of history lesson; come for the vibe.
I’d given up on RomComs because it felt like RomComs had given up. Formulaic, uninspired, derivative, implausible and lacking in able and likeable talent (with the possible exception of Mila Kunis), RomComs for at least a decade (since Knocked Up) have been almost entirely crappy. But The Big Sick wins on every level. It has an extremely smart, continually funny screenplay that constantly diverges from the established and utterly boring formula; it has superb and truely likeable performances from every single performer involved; and it is not only plausible, it feels realistic – because it’s based on the romantic “origin story” of its screenwriters, and they’ve worked hard to keep things real.
They are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who have now been married for ten years. They might have “met cute”, but their courtship endured what will go down as a high-water mark for RomCom complications, along with Knocked Up’s pregnancy, Harry and Sally’s “sex in friendship” conundrum and Alvy Singer’s distrust of any woman that would actually want to be with someone like him. I’m not going to spoil the plot, and I highly recommend avoiding all trailers and promotional material for the film, such as you can, before seeing it. Suffice to say, it’s the kind of original plot twist that would be pretty hard to swallow if it wasn’t true – but it’s true.
That’s the secret sauce flavouring this wonderful movie. It’s sincere. Although the couple have acknowledged quite a few deviations from their actual story in their script, there was only one moment in the whole film that I figured had to represent dramatic license, and it was hardly a deal-breaker. For the most part I swallowed it all, and it tasted authentic and fantastically, deliriously fresh. Knocked Up was “semi”-autobiographical (written and directed by Judd Apatow, who produces here) as was Annie Hall, and maybe that’s what RomComs need: truth.
The two main characters even keep their names, although only Kumail plays himself. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, who has not had a good big-screen vehicle since Ruby Sparks in 2012. She is wonderful here; her Emily has all the attractive qualities necessary to the genre, but also depth, complexity and nuance. She is not wildly dissimilar, physically, to the real Emily, and I imagine Miss V. Gordon must find the experience of watching “herself” eerie; she should also find it deeply satisfying.
As himself, Nanjiani has to carry the movie, appearing in almost every scene, and he makes the leap from established television presence (Silicon Valley and a million appearances in shows from Veep to Archer) and scene-stealing day player (a million comedies including Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Central Intelligence, Sex Tape, Bad Milo, Hell Baby, The Five Year Engagement etc) to big-screen leading man admirably. He definitely has a rhythm, cadence and comedic style which, like that of Woody Allen, follows him from role to role – an inoffensive low-key sarcasm – but it fits him like a glove here, because he’s really, truly, playing himself.
Director Michael Showalter not only gets superb performances and honours the integrity of the script; he also proves a master of tone. For a film dealing with much higher stakes than your average RomCom, The Big Sick never once drops into maudlin sentimentality – the jokes never stop coming even when things get real, but things are allowed to get real. The use of music is restrained, the camera is unobtrusive yet precise, and pratfalls, excessive profanity, garish sight gags and silly set-pieces have no place. This beautiful film will appeal to all, but it is built by grown-ups, and not afraid to wear its intelligence proudly.