Saturday, January 6, 2018

"Baby Driver" And "The Big Sick"

Still playing catch-up.  Bear with me.

I've been a big fan of Edgar Wright's work so far, and was very upset when his "Ant-man" gig fell apart.  So I was rootingfor "Baby Driver" from the start, especially when I learned what a personal project it was for Wright.  And as one of the few original films of last summer, it was an irresistable underdog right out of the gate.  And so it pains me to have to declare that this is one of Wright's least successfully executed films.  Oh, there are parts of it that are brilliant, with ideas and images and bits of sound design that are pretty close to perfect.  Unfortunately, he couldn't sustain this over a whole feature.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver.  He has tinnitus and listens to music constantly to drown out the noise, so everything in his life is synced to different songs.  The various heists he works are handled by Doc (Kevin Spacey), who Baby is in debt to.  His life is going fine until Baby falls for a waitress name Debora (Lily James), and agrees to work a heist involving the unpredictable crew of Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) and Bats (Jamie Foxx).  The real star of the picture, however, may be the soundtrack, which drives every major set-piece of the film.  

At first, the gimmick of Baby's constant soundtrack works beautifully.  The opening car chase set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" is a breathless delight, and I love all the little ways that Baby's environment visually matches song lyrics and instrumentation when he goes out to get coffee to "Harlem Shuffle."  But the concept starts wearing thin by the time we get to a shootout set to "Tequila," and is run completely into the ground by the time we reach a poorly conceived finale set to "Brighton Rock."  And then there's the coda, which is one of the most oddly incompetent pieces of filmmaking I've seen this year.  I have to wonder if Wright might have run out of time or money or if there was some accident with the footage.

And it's such a shame because Ansel Elgort and Lily James are both so enjoyable here, and there are so many clever little moments that are representative of Wright at his filmmaking best.  I love the post office visit with Doc's nephew (Brogan Hall), and the Paul Williams cameo, and just about everything with Baby's foster father Joe (CJ Jones).  I'd estimate about sixty percent of this movie is flat-out fantastic, but the rest is subpar enough that I can't in good conscience call it a good movie.  I am, however, gratified to know that "Baby Driver" has done well enough at the box office that a sequel may be a possibility.

And now for something completely different.

"The Big Sick" features Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself at the beginning of his standup career.  He falls in love with a white American girl named Emily (Zoe Kazan), but keeps the relationship a secret from his immigrant parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff), who want him to marry a Pakistani woman.  The situation becomes complicated when Emily winds up in the hospital with life-threatening infection, and Kumail meets Emily's parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).  The story is based on the real events of Kumail's early relationship with writer Emily V. Gordon, and works as both a romantic comedy and family melodrama.       

Kumail Nanjiani has been a familiar face for a while now, appearing in smaller roles in various sitcoms and movies.  I know him best as the host of "The X-Files Files" podcast.  As a Pakistani entertainer, the roles offered by Hollywood were limited, so of course he had to go and write himself his own leading man part.  And it's quite a charmer.  Nanjiani has a pleasant screen presence, and he wisely takes a backseat in many scenes to more veteran performers like Kher, Romano, and Hunter.  However, when he's front and center, he proves more than capable of carrying the film by himself.  There's a wonderful honesty to his performance, and his willingness to let the audience see such a personal chapter of his life up close is commendable.   

The film is divided up into fairly discrete parts - Nanjiani with his family, Nanjiani doing stand-up, and Nanjiani with Emily and later her parents.  And even when the going gets tough, there's not much crossover between one part of Nanjiani's life and any of the others.  My one major quibble with "The Big Sick" is that the stand-up segments are considerably less interesting than what's going on in the ones with Nanjiani's various relationships.  I wish more time could have been spent with the Nanjiani family, particularly as it's such a rare positive depiction of a devout Muslim family.  The film even takes a very even-handed approach to depicting arranged marriages, which is fascinating.   

Judd Apatow apparently helped shepherd Nanjiani and Gordon through writing the script, which unfolds in a very genuine, and frequently amusing manner.  It's great to see a film like this that feels so off the beaten path, combining bits of immigrant narratives, medical crisis dramas,  and modern romance in ways that seem very novel, and yet clearly true to life.  I'm glad that Nanjiani and Gordon decided to share it with us, because it's definitely a story worth exploring, and nobody was closer to the material or more qualified to bring it to the screen.  

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