By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Reviews of The Big Sick and The Exception
The Big Sick
As the lead in The Big Sick, comedian Kumail Nanjiani tries to impress a date with his movie taste: The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Night of the Living Dead … But I’d bet that star and co-writer Nanjiani has a deeper source in his head: Buster Keaton, the funniest stone-face, the silent king of deadpan. As a modern comic and actor, Nanjiani relies on words as Buster didn’t, but he also has a watchful stillness, a shy gravity, a gift for pauses and gulpy silences. They resonate his gags, and let us peer into the thinker (and feeler) behind them.
Kumail, as everyone calls him, is an aspiring Chicago stand-up, and Michael Showalter’s movie heads back often to the club, the funny buddies, the sitcom rhythms. My response: move on (even Robert De Niro did it, recently, in The Comedian). But as the title implies, The Big Sick is not all laffs. The club stuff is periodic stress relief. So is Kumail’s émigré family, trying to marry him to a nice, Muslim, Pakistani woman (that’s funny, much like My Big Fat Greek Wedding). More stressed, yet also funny, are the parents of his new, very American girl: experts Ray Romano, as the big, good shlub of a dad, and Holly Hunter as her mom (decades after Raising Arizona, Hunter still has the best fem-twang in the biz, and the timing of her scenes with Kumail is perfection).
I offer the “c” word: coma. Pale, bird-cute Emily (Zoe Kazan), Kumail’s new squeeze, is dear, funny and charming.As Kumail is good at guilty confessions, I confide one myself. When an infection puts Emily into the hospital, then a coma, I felt: good, a break from the rock-drill undertone of her voice. Emily rebounds after much suspense, heartache and medical consultation. You might see the finish coming (no, not death or paralysis), yet it is timed so that it almost sneaks up on us.
The movie has filler, like the riff between Emily’s parents. But Nanjiani hubs the fine cast, and there are very funny lines, from “He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis, except he sucks,” to the way Hunter, sauced, dribbles “I like wine because of the buzz.” Co-written by Nanjiani’s wife Emily Gordon, this is not a mere comic’s film, or a rom-com, or a TV pilot looking for a slot. The Big Sick is enough of a big deal, modestly, to be a winner.
Half a century after his Anglo-Austrian accent as Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, here is Christopher Plummer at 82, rumbling an Anglo-Prussian accent in The Exception. Alas, no singing kids, no Alps, no edelweiss. Plummer is Kaiser Wilhelm II, living in dull Dutch exile. France has just fallen to Hitler (1940), and Wilhelm’s snobbish disdain for Adolf marches in goosestep with his dream that maybe, with luck, he will again rule Deutschland! Leaving Hitler as what? Court painter? Keeper of the beer steins? The fantasy of return fixates Wilhelm’s wife, played by Janet McTeer as a wax echo of old Helen Hayes in Anastasia.
A bull-built German soldier, Capt. Brandt (Jai Courtney), is installed by the Nazis to “protect” Wilhelm, by spying on him. He develops a Blitzkrieg lust for a Dutch Jewish maid, Mieke (Lily James). His inner doubts about the Fuhrer delight the sexy British spy in her, and they rut with fierce solidarity. Cooler episodes feature the imperial feeding of ducks, and old memories served like rare wine (“remember, at four he bit the Prince of Wales in the leg!”). As usual the Nazi uniforms are superb, but the Kaiser’s wardrobe is a Reich unto himself.
Evil enters the royal chateau as S.S. devil Heinrich Himmler, acted by Eddie Marsan as a small, frigid, poisonous turd. Marsan is terrific, and Plummer remains fairly plummy. Aussie-born Courtney’s machismo is often subtle. But then the plot fabric unravels into a flying hairball of gee-wiz, what-the-hell und Mein Gott! At some point between the schnitzel and the schnapps, the script fell dead from indigestion.
SALAD (A List)
Christopher Plummer’s Best Ten Filmed Roles (my choice): Walt Murdoch in Wind Across the Everglades, 1958; Commodus in Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964; Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, 1969; Herod Antipas in Jesus of Nazareth, 1977; Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner, 1979; Vladimir Nabokov in Nabokov on Kafka, 1989; Abakumov in The First Circle, 1992; Mike Wallace in The Insider, 1999; Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, 2009, and John Barrymore in Barrymore, 2011.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson’s postwar production of Macbeth, first on stage (in Utah!) then filmed low-budget, had a religious subtext: “The main point is the struggle between the old and new religions. I saw the witches as representing Druidical pagan religion, repressed by Christianity … that’s why the screen is choked with Celtic crosses. The witches are the priestesses. I only wish I hadn’t failed so badly with the witches themselves. They were lousy.” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Speed Levitch, circa 1996, fills the frame: his arrest mug, wide-eyed, cornered, Raskolnikovian. ‘I was runnin’ hard at that time,’ he recalls, ‘the anti-cruise was breathing down my neck … It never occurred to them that I am running from the anti-cruise every day! And I’m gonna keep running!” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)