The Big Sick (2017)

The Big Sick might be the sole Judd Apatow production to date that would benefit from a longer runtime. Written by real-life married couple & longtime comedy world mainstays Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon, the film attempts to cram the bizarre true story about their personal relationship into the structure of a traditional romcom. In that respect, it’s mostly successful. The film is touching, sweet, and darkly funny in its awkward, vulnerably human reactions to an impossible romantic scenario. However, by molding a real, nuanced story into the shape of a three act, trope-laden genre structure, the film tends to glaze over some of its most essential relationships in a way that distorts its focus & undercuts its own power. Over time, The Big Sick turns out not to be about romance at all, but about unlikely partnerships that form in its absence. When its romcom genre structure demands that it return to that romance, then, the overall result is a picture that somehow isn’t self-aware of the emotional hook that makes it feel truly special in its best, most distinctive moments. With a little more screentime & a little less adherence to genre that may not have been the case.

Kumail Nanjiani stars as a younger version of himself, an aimless college graduate trying to stay afloat in the Chicago stand-up comedy scene & to maintain a relationship with his devout Muslim parents despite his own secular, Scorsese-esque crisis of faith. A Pakistani immigrant family, Nanjiani’s parents & brother push him to both pursue a more lucrative career & to submit to a traditional arranged marriage romance. Instead, he pays rent as an Uber driver & falls in love with a white girl. It’s a move his brother disappointedly calls cliche & his parents disown him over. The most shocking aspect of this family-destroying relationship isn’t that it bucks against Islamic values, however. Nanjiani’s life is disrupted when his new, white girlfriend, furious that he’s kept their relationship a secret as long as possible, is bedridden with a medically-induced coma and is faced with the precipice of death. He meets her family for the first time while she’s unconscious in the ICU & they’re technically broken up, leaving the parents suspicious as to why he cares enough to wait by her side. The questions this situation raises are vast in range. Will the girlfriend’s family remain cold to Kumail’s concern for their near-dead, comatose daughter? Will Kumail’s own family invite him back to the fold despite his secularism & apparent disregard for tradition? Will the girlfriend accept him back in her life when she recovers? Will she recover at all? These questions have all been answered by the real life history of the couple who penned the screenplay, but their tension still makes for a great dramatic plot for a modern, heartfelt romcom.

Because Nanjiani stars as (a slightly fictionalized version of) himself, the story mostly follows his personal trajectory as he’s alienated by his cultural, professional, and romantic conflicts. This narrow focus works exceptionally well in the film’s second act, but allows the narrative to stray from its most interesting character dynamics in the bookends of that center: Emily’s coma. Before the coma, Kumail’s relationships with his girlfriend & the eligible Pakistani women his parents pressure into him auditioning are rushed, never given enough room to develop in a significant way. Zoe Kazan is endearing as (the fictionalized version of) Emily, but the screentime she’s allowed isn’t pronounced enough to make her relationship with Kumail feel worth the trouble & commitment it stirs. The Pakistani women are even less fortunate in that respect, essentially reduced to a pile of interchangable photographs in a cigar box. A slightly extended runtime could’ve fixed either deficiency, which is a truly strange thing to wish for in an Apatow production. Instead, the most significant relationship formed onscreen is between Kumail & Emily’s parents. Ray Romano (who is staggeringly impressive here) & Holly Hunter (who’s also great, but less surprisingly so) shape the heart of the film as they cautiously allow Kumail into their lives as Emily’s parents. They’re tense, emotionally vulnerable people suffering their loneliest, most terrifying hour and there’s genuine power in the way they recognize that same hurt in their daughter’s estranged boyfriend. That’s why it’s disappointing when the movie’s romcom genre trappings steer its third act back towards Kumail’s less-defined relationship with Emily (for wholly understandable reasons) instead of resolving or deepening the dynamic that made for its funniest & most devastating moments, his relationship with her parents.

Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute. Obviously, if my main complaint about a film is that there could have been more of it, it’s probably a worthwhile & enjoyable picture as is. The jokes are funny. The romantic triumphs are rewarding. The cultural details of the stand-up comedy world setting & Pakistani familial dynamics make for a memorably specific, distinct experience. It’s just a little frustrating that the most significant, exciting relationships of the movie are sacrificed for a more traditional, Apatow style romcom plot instead of being freely explored in the darkly funny indie film melancholy territory they deserve. There are at least a handful of films that have already detail romantic relationships somewhat similar to Kumail & Emily’s story in The Big Sick, as odd & coma-specific as it is, but Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents is something much more unique & worth examining. A better, more self-aware film might have reconciled that, either by narrowing its focus or extending its runtime.

-Brandon Ledet

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

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Is it possible for someone to have an unbiased opinion on Pee-wee Herman in 2016? It seems like everyone in the world even remotely in tune with the pop culture landscape probably knows by now whether or not they’re on board with Paul Reubens’ man-child alter-ego & his home planet of eternal 50s kitsch. I guess for the purposes of this review I should go ahead & confess my own bias: I’m a wholly committed fan of everything P.W. Herman. The long-defunct television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse is one of my favorite examples of modern surrealism. His 1985 cinematic debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains my all-time favorite Tim Burton feature (though Ed Wood is a close second). I’ll even stand up for the much-hated sophomore feature Big Top Pee-wee, which I think is underappreciated for its off-putting sense of tongue-in-cheek camp. I love Pee-wee so much I should probably marry him.

So, yeah, to say that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a for-fans-only venture is a bit of a redundancy, since all Pee-wee content is something of an acquired taste. The direct-to-Netflix production is only different from earlier Herman outings in that it feels like it was made by fans (who now happen to be moderately famous). Heavy-hitter comedy producer Judd Apatow, Comedy Bang Bang regular & creator of the excellent Netflix series Love (also produced by Apatow) Paul Rust, and director/multi-media artist John Lee (who had an absurdly subversive/satirical run with the projects PFFR, Wonder Showzen, and Xavier: Renegade Angel) all come together to form a really geeky Pee-wee Herman fan club, making Pee-wee’s Big Holiday out to be something of a labor of love (or a dream come true, depending on your perspective). And the president of this fan club just happens to be none other than Magic Mike XXL star/popular kid Joe Manganiello, who appears here as the film’s hunky MacGuffin.

In the same way J.J. Abrams recently took the reins of the mighty Star Wars empire by mirroring past story lines in The Force Awakens, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tries to revive Herman’s prominence in the world by returning to the roots of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The similarities between Big Adventure & Big Holiday are unavoidable, even right there in the titles. Both films are road trip comedies. Both open with needlessly complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions. Both feature surrealist dream sequences (this time with a Mac & Me-style alien instead of the much more terrifying clown surgeons of yesteryear). Both feature former new wave punk legends on their scores (this time Mark Mothersbaugh instead of Danny Elfman). Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished.

While working as a short-order cook at a 50s-style diner in the Pleasantville-esque town of Fairville, Pee-Wee is shocked to discover that his doo-wop band is calling it quits, a blow that pretty much puts an end to his social life. Stuck in a hopeless rut, it takes a chance encounter with Joe Manganiello (starring as his wonderful self) to convince Pee-wee to break free from his milquetoast lifestyle & explore the world outside Fairville on a quest to attend Manganiello’s birthday party in NYC. Along the way he meets a long line of eccentrics played by mainstays from past Pee-wee projects & minor comedic personalities. His run-ins with traveling novelty product salesmen, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!-style gangsters (who include among them Arrested Development/The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat wearing the exact angora sweater director Ed Wood spent a lifetime fetishizing), strange mountain men, Amish folk, and sassy beauty salon weirdos are all entertaining in a lighthearted, episodic sort of way, but they all exist merely to support Herman’s madness-in-repetition comedic stylings, which are just as top notch as ever.

It’s easy to see why Lee, Rust, Apatow, and company would return to the road trip format for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s also billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops. All else should be pleased to know that Big Holiday is more like Big Adventure than Big Top (which I still contend is under-loved) and should pretty much already know whether or not they’ll have fun with what’s delivered.

-Brandon Ledet

From The PG Era to a Solid R: John Cena’s Promising Career in Raunchy Comedies

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There weren’t that many surprises for me in the new Amy Schumer-penned romcom Trainwreck. As was typical with almost all Judd Apatow comedies, the film was generally pleasant and supported a wealth of great gags & a wonderful cast, but also was in desperate need of some third-act editing. Recent over-exposure to Schumer’s more unrestrained writing on her sketch comedy TV show had me looking for something a little more (excuse the pun) off the rails from Trainwreck than the usual Apatow fare, though, so my expectations for something more unconventional were more than a little off base. I liked it; I just wasn’t caught unprepared for most of its content.

However, I was taken aback by the comedic performance of pro wrestler/in-the-flesh superhero John Cena. My surprise with Cena began before even the opening credits, when a trailer for an upcoming Amy Poehler/Tina Fey comedy called Sisters featured the typically clean-cut wrestler decorated in neck tats & a beanie, informing a hot-to-trot Fey that his safe word is “keep going”. That was just the start. In Trainwreck itself, Cena is even more subversive in dismantling his squeaky clean persona by appearing as he normally would in public, but with much raunchier content backing him up. It was difficult to determine from the film’s trailer how just how much of Cena we’d be seeing outside of that quotable “Mark Wahlberg” one-liner, but it turns out that we get to see way more of him than most people would’ve asked for. His character, Steven, engages (with varying degrees of success) in dirty talk, fully-nude on-screen lovemaking, undercutting questions about his own sexuality, and an intense pantomime of an ejaculation that will . . . not . . . end. As a fan of raunchy sex comedies, I found these gags just the right tone of playfully amusing. As a pro wrestling fan, I found them downright shocking.

For anyone who (understandably) has not been paying attention to the WWE since the creative heights of its so-called Attitude Era of the late 90s/early 00s, John Cena has more or less dominated the company’s narrative for the past decade. Shifting away from some of the more gruesomely violent & overtly sexual content of yesteryear, WWE sorta-unofficially promoted Cena as the face of the company. With his classic military looks & his character’s (almost) forgotten beginnings as a white rapper, Cena has been scripted within the ring to be more or less a superhero for young children to look up to. His stubborn refusal to “turn heel”, constant sloganizing about never giving up & always being respectful, and his never-ending championship victories appeal directly to younger fans, which drives a lot of older, nerdier smarks to disgust, deeming his reign as The PG Era. This behavior has spilled outside the ring as well. In his WWE Studios movies, Cena has always played the unblemished hero, like in his action movie vehicle The Marine, or a superhero version of himself, like in the Scooby-Doo/WWE crossover where he defeats a robotic ghost bear & an Indiana Jones style bolder with his bare hands. Then, there’s the fact that he in “real life” has more Make-a-Wish Foundation charity work than any other celebrity on record. In short, he is a ludicrously wholesome persona inside the ring & out.

The thing about Cena is that he really is likeable. There’s just way too much content out there about him being likeable. If you religiously follow WWE’s two flagship shows, Raw & SmackDown, (God help you) then there’s six hours of content on a weekly basis about how likeable John Cena is. And that’s not even counting the monthly Pay-Per-Views or the reality shows. That’s gotta wear even the most enthusiastic viewers down after a few years. Fortunately, though, things seem to be (gradually) changing. Cena’s niche at the company has been looking more like a respectable midcard position for the past few months (although, as I’m typing this now it looks like they’re pushing another championship match for him at this year’s SummerSlam) and he’s been putting in some of the best in-ring work of his career & helping get over lesser-known talents through his recent John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge angle. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how he’s subverting his spotless image through comedies like Sisters & Trainwreck.

I first noticed this shift during the last few episodes of the now-legendary NBC comedy Parks & Recreation, where Cena appeared as himself on the episode “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” (one of my favorite episodes of the series). Cena did little to taint his superhero image in that appearance, but there was a spark of hope there in his willingness to make a fool of himself, when he so often manages to land on top. It also helped that Parks boasted a deep roster of talented comedians that could land Cena bit parts in worthwhile bigscreen comedies through networking. It’s tough to say whether it was Poehler’s Parks connection that helped Cena land his part in Sisters or the odd fact that Amy Schumer once dated pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler that helped him land his persona-shedding role in Trainwreck, but it couldn’t have hurt in either situation. No matter what the cause, Cena now seems to have his foot in the door for a life on the bigscreen (as opposed to WWE Studios’ straight-to-VOD dreck) and his career could be at a pivotal point because of it.

It’s a very rare feat for the WWE to successfully launch a career in Hollywood. Hulk Hogan is certainly the earliest example, but even he had a tough time making a lasting go of it after his ridiculous start in titles like No Holds Barred & Rocky III. Outside of a couple 90s goof-offs like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, he hasn’t made much of a memorable mark outside the ring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, on the other hand, has been a much clearer success story with his roles in franchises like The Fast & The Furious and G.I. Joe. Even The Rock’s been struggling to branch out & express himself as an artist, though. Despite a few wildly off-the-wall turns in films like Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, he’s been landing a lot of roles he would have been typecast in over a decade ago. Schlock like Hercules & San Andreas aren’t nearly enough of a step-up from his days as The Scorpion King, considering the talents he’s put on film in his his stranger roles.

Both The Rock & Hulk Hogan have long struggled to expand the scope of their acting careers once they got their foot in the door and now it’s John Cena’s turn to fight that battle. Starting his career in major films by degrading himself in raunchy comedies is honestly a brilliant first step in that direction. Cena’s showing us that his spotless superhero persona does not necessarily define him as a talent. Let’s face it; a lot of the kids who would’ve latched onto the original version of his current “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” routine in its initial run would be in at least their late teens now, so it makes total sense that his content would grow up with them. I could be wrong & Cena could be slipping back into his old ways (starting as soon as SummerSlam next month), but there’s at the very least a glimmer of hope for change in his roles in Sisters & Trainwreck.

I’ve recently grown to like Cena despite my initial misgivings. His repetitive nature really isn’t all that unique within the world of pro wrestling, after all, and he can be really entertaining when he puts in his best work. Besides, it’s really difficult to deny the power of those Make-a-Wish numbers. I’d just also like to see him continue to branch out into these filthy, degenerate characters in goofy comedies until it’s no longer jarring to the audience. It might be his best chance at establishing himself outside of his roles as a “sports entertainer” and an eternal “good guy”. As Hogan & The Rock have proved time & time again, the WWE ring will always be there with open arms for whenever he needs it. There’s no reason, then, not to go out there & make himself vulnerable in a gross-out comedy or two. Judging by his work in Trainwreck alone, he’s already off to a great start.

-Brandon Ledet