“What If”–She Doesn”t Understand?

What If the movie

What If  is a charming romantic comedy perfect for the holidays. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) as Wallace and Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”) as Chantry, What If is a well-written story about two millennials who meet at a party and unexpectedly decide to start a friendship. Wallace is emotionally damaged from a failed romance with a doctor while both were in med school. He dropped out, and now is languishing in an unsatisfying and boring job, still moping over a year later. Chantry, a quirky intellectual artist who works for an animation studio, lives with her longtime boyfriend who is a high-power international negotiator.

Both Chantry and Wallace are somewhat awkward socially and emotionally wobbly, but blossom in each other’s company, discussing arcane topics that no one else seems interested in.

Canadian screenwriter and novelist Elan Mastai has written a sharp and clever comedy, balancing laughs with heart. Suggesting the tentative sweetness of changing the territory of the “friendzone” and the “love triangle”, What If asks the question: What does it mean to fall in love with your best friend?

The romantic comedy genre seems to be criticized a lot. There are plenty of cheesy films but What If is a gem. It’s well-written and a romantic comedy done right. Like most movies of this genre, you know how this movie progresses. However, What If still has some fresh moments, including the near universal (?) awkwardness for the woman (and maybe the man) in using the bathroom in the friend’s apartment. The scene is hilarious and endearing at the same time.

The dialogue stands out, alive with surprising turns and turbo-charged zingers as honest conversations poured out stemming from love, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings.

There is an undeniable charm in the ensemble cast’s performances (including Adam Driver). Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan bring soul and chemistry to the human connection they both are afraid of but want so desperately. My only negative comments are that neither the subplot with Chantry’s mother doesn’t contribute to the story’s momentum nor does the intrusive clips of animation. The overall structure of the story, however, with a nice “bookending” of first and last scenes is outstanding.

What If is worth watching as delightful, feel-good entertainment. If you’re looking for an intelligent–not cheesy– comedy to watch during the holidays (don’t wait until Valentine’s Day), rent What If.

Note: Available on Netflix

 

“The Big Sick”–A Prescription for Love

The Big Sick is a winner. One of my favorite movies this year! It just may be the breakout comedy of 2017 as well.

Romance, cultural conflict, things unsaid–based on a true story, The Big Sick takes on the theme of how family bonds can break when their adult children’s relationships are not what the parents wish for. The Big Sick raises the question: What’s more important– your significant other or your family? Tackling complex issues of family obligation, The Big Sick also infuses humor and grace in much of the witty and well-written dialogue.

The central character is Kumail (played by Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley”), a Pakistani-born stand-up comedian struggling to become successful as he works part-time as an Uber driver while waiting to be discovered in a Chicago comedy club. In the audience is a psychology grad student, Emily Gardner, who is seemingly “white bread”. They begin a relationship, but seem not to be fully committed.

Will Emily’s parents have as much difficulty accepting Kumail as his parents have difficulty accepting Emily? The twists are surprising and unexpected. Kumail finds himself forced to decide between pleasing his parents who desire to arrange a marriage with a Pakistani girl or accepting his feelings towards Emily. The young couple’s situation spins out of control when Emily becomes extremely ill and Kumail has to deal with her parents.

Kumail is caught in a maelstrom of competing worlds: different cultural backgrounds and traditions, difficulties of interracial relationships and Islamophobia, sometimes unconscious but always hurtful. Kumail’s overbearing, loving family means well and so does Emily’s.   This makes The Big Sick no garden variety rom-com, but a refreshing comedy drama which confronts social and political controversies head on.

The script manages to balance the serious and the comedic without resorting to a hint of sentimentality. Emily (Zoe Kazan), Emily’s mother (Holly Hunter) and her dad (Ray Romano) and Kumail’s parents– Anupam Kher as the father and Zenobia Shroff as the mother– are all lovable, well-intentioned, and deeply flawed. The mothers especially tear up the screen with their fierce performances. The entire ensemble cast–including minor family members and friends–are simply extraodinary.

You will laugh, you will be close to tears and you might engage in own introspection after watching The Big Sick. Brilliantly written and beautifully acted, this one is from the heart. It works so successfully on many different levels and that is a rare achievement, especially for comedy, which in my opinion, is the most difficult to write.

You have to see this one!

“Ruby Sparks”– A Spark of Creativity”

Ruby SparksIf you could create the partner of your dreams, would you be happy with him or her?  Would that relationship be all about you, completely one-sided, and therefore unsatisfying? What makes “Ruby Sparks” so funny, but also harsh and uncomfortable, are answers to those questions given throughout this quirky film. Written by and starring Zoe Kazan as well as the exceptional Paul Dano (also in “Prisoners”, see last week’s movie review), “Ruby Sparks” is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame).

Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young novelist  whose reputation ranks just below that of “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Now, a decade later, he is  struggling with both writer’s block and a void in his romantic life.  Like all writers of fiction who have strong feelings for the characters they write about, as well as an ability to make the character real and worth being interesting, Calvin creates the character of Ruby (Zoe Kazan), his ideal girlfriend, and soon she is no longer a figment of his imagination but created in the flesh, sitting in his apartment.  Each time he writes about Ruby, the embodied Ruby has those attributes and behavior, including fluency in French.

The transitions in both Calvin and Ruby’s characters are expertly handled. Mr. Dano’s Calvin combines Woody Allen’s schlemiel and intellect.  But as Calvin’s manipulative experiments continue, the film abruptly turns down a dark road:  Ruby becomes alternatively manic, needy, independent, masochistically submissive and depressed.

The games reach a feverish pitch when Ruby watches Calvin sitting at his desk, frantically typing instructions about her, which she tries to resist but can’t.   Although he is either the Professor to Pygmalion or Geppetto to Pinocchio, Dano’s interpretation of Calvin results in a compelling and riveting performance.  He is as much a neurotic, self-absorbed victim as his fictive creation, Ruby, is.  The difference is that he is also incredibly amoral and capable of inflicting severe humiliation on Ruby.

“Ruby Sparks” (2012) cannot be easily categorized as comedy or drama, nor is it a rom-com although critics have called this unique movie all of the above.  It is, first and foremost, a film about creativity.   As in another brilliant movie, “Stranger than Fiction”  (2006) (starring Emma Thompson and Will Farrell), the writer of a novel is consumed by the characters he or she creates and they do take on a life of their own.  My novel, “Unhealed Wound”, will soon have a life of its own too.  I’ll keep you posted as the manuscript goes through its final polishing.