Zoe Kazan

Wildlife

11/11/18

Wildlife is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and its an impressive opening gambit from the quirky young (ish) actor. He’s co-written the screenplay too (adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel), his second collaboration with his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan. I like it. A lot. It’s a quiet, understated piece of work, and it gives the actors space to develop their roles.

It’s 1960-something. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is fourteen, and he’s moved with his family to Great Falls, Montana. We soon learn that he is used to new beginnings, that his dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a dreamer; he finds it hard to hold down a job. Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), indulges Jerry’s fecklessness: she loves him. So she and Joe follow him from town to town, never putting down roots.

But when Jerry is fired for being over-familiar with the members of the golf club where he works, he decides he wants to join the firefighters tackling the flames devouring the Montana forests. Jeanette begs him not to take the job: it means leaving his family, and they’ve never been apart before. She’ll deal with anything, it seems, as long as they’re together. If he goes, he risks the whole relationship, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Never mind that Jeanette can earn more than him, as a substitute teacher or a swimming coach; never mind that there are other jobs in town; he’s too proud to take them. He’s set on his course, determined to see it through.

Gyllenhaal is a gifted actor, no doubt about it, but it’s at this point – as he leaves – that the film begins to flower. Joe’s pained, inarticulate response to the disintegration of his parents’ marriage is excruciating; Oxenbould excels at conveying discomfort without saying anything.

And Mulligan is magnificent as the aggrieved Jeanette, bitter and resentful that her sacrifices haven’t been enough. She’s stuck with Jerry through thick and thin, but now he’s abandoned her. She reacts with self-destructive fury, seeking to recover the girl she used to be, dressing up and acting up, flirting with men she doesn’t even like. There’s a vulnerability at the heart of the performance that keeps us onside, even when she’s making Joe’s (and our) toes curl, with the kind of sexual and emotional revelations no teenager ever wants to hear from a parent.

And Gyllenhaal gets his chance to shine too, on his return, when the inevitable consequences creep up on them all. No one’s behaving well, but no one means any harm: it’s a sad tale of human frailty, an affecting tragedy.

The Montana backdrop is beautifully filmed, the hazy smoke a constant reminder of the dual threat the fires pose. There is a slow, almost dreamy quality to the storytelling here, an emotional depth that draws us in with no sensationalism. Mulligan has been widely tipped for an Oscar nomination, and I can absolutely see why. Jeanette is a character of great complexity, the performance nuanced and intricate.

A must-see, I’d say.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Big Sick

23/07/17

The Big Sick is a fascinating movie: a rom-com for the modern age. Despite being produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Knocked Up), the ‘com’ part of the equation is relatively subtle, avoiding (for the most part) the broad, scatalogical approach for which he is famed. Instead, this is a gentle, honest exploration of cross-cultural love and the complexities of modern relationships.

Based on the true story of writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the film charts the initial stages of their romance as they negotiate the choppy waters of one-night stands, reluctantly-developing feelings and parental expectations. When a sudden, devastating illness is added to the mix, it seems as if the relationship might break under the strain.

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, which adds to the sense of truthfulness. His performance is both charming and understated, with a quirky mix of confidence and modesty, which is very appealing indeed. He doesn’t self-aggrandize, but nor does he self-deprecate in that ostentatious, humble-bragging manner some comedians employ. And his account of his family is affectionate and kind, even though he’s largely shown in opposition to them. They want him to become a lawyer; they want him to be a devout Muslim; they want to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman. None of these things coincides with what Kumail wants for himself: he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian; he’s not sure about his faith. But his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are not his enemies: they are his family and they love him as much as he loves them. Their marriage is happy, and so is his brother, Naveed (Adeel Ahktar)’s: they all just want the best for him. The women they introduce him to are not awful; they’re real, believable people: attractive, intelligent, with interests of their own. But Kumail has fallen for Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). And she doesn’t fit the mould because she’s a white American.

As for grad-student psychologist Emily, she’s appalled to discover that Kumail is considering an arranged marriage, and that his plans for the future don’t necessarily include her. She’s in love with him, and devastated by the realisation that he’s caught between two worlds. “I can’t be the reason you lose your family,” she tells him. It’s too big, too much.

When Emily falls ill, however, Kumail is forced to confront his feelings and make a decision. He can’t coast along trying to appease everyone forever.

It doesn’t sound very amusing when it’s summarised, but this film is as irreverently funny as it is moving. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are hilarious as Emily’s bickering parents, and Kher and Shroff’s disapproving double act is also excellent. The scenes backstage in the comedy club are illuminating, and benefit from a convincing shot of authenticity – after all, this is a world that seasoned stand-up Nanjiani knows well.

Really, this is a delightful film, with such a lot going for it. But don’t go along expecting a gross-out comedy. This is something way more interesting.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

What If

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26/08/14

There’s nothing startling about the premise of What If; it confronts the same fairly standard rom-com conundrums as countless films have done before: can a man and a woman really be ‘just friends’? And what happens to the friendship when they fall in love? So far, so humdrum – and yet, somehow, What If succeeds in feeling fresh and vibrant.

Some of this is down to the dialogue, which is endearingly believable. There are jokes about poo – but it’s not gross-out. Potential cliches are set up, and then undercut. The characters are as flawed and odd as real human beings – not simple amalgams of manufactured quirks.

Daniel Radcliffe, as the sweet but directionless Wallace, shows once again that he is more than a boy wizard. (He really can act, and has a pretty impressive range: from The Woman in Black to Kill Your Darlings and now this; I think he’s proved himself.) The awkward chemistry between him and Zoe ‘Ruby Sparks’ Kazan (as the horribly-named Chantry) lights up the screen, and the Toronto setting is also a welcome change.

A charming and very watchable film.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield