Laughing Through the Tears: The Big Sick, Dean, and Other People
The past two years have given us a handful of well known comedians turned first-time movie writers and/or directors. Each movie is based on its respective comedian's real life experiences, and funny enough (or predictably if you're going off of the Pagliacci stereotype), all of these movies revolve around depressing issues. So get ready to cry your eyes out as we delve into the topics of grief, deathly illness, and the death of a parent. With consideration to your feelings, I've even listed these in order of least to most weeping potential, and included a tear rating (not to be confused with star ratings) to let you know just how much you'll be crying.
The story of how standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani met Emily Gordon, started dating, and subsequently got married is certainly a unique one. Directed by fellow comedian and seasoned director Michael Showalter, The Big Sick (2017) tells the real-life story of how Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) went from an innocent heckler at a comedy show, to whirlwind girlfriend, to in a coma within months of meeting Kumail (played by himself) – and of course it all happened after they got into a big fight and broke up.
Kumail subsequently finds himself torn between both Emily's frantic parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and his own deep sense of regret over how things were left off before she got sick. Then there's Kumail's parents (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher): who keep inviting random Pakistani women to come over during family dinners in hopes Kumail finds a wife. He'd been humoring them by playing along, but now with all of his emotions for Emily magnified, their set-ups are starting to wear thin. However, fearing that they might disown him for not wanting an arranged marriage, he's stuck keeping his family in the dark about where he's been going all day.
I enjoyed The Big Sick for a bunch of reasons. First off, it's a crazy meet-cute cum heartbreak-horror story that definitely merits the movie treatment – life truly is crazier than fiction. Second, I loved the supporting cast so much, they truly made this entire movie for me. It was great to see some actually nuanced representation of culture-clashing against the idealized concept of the American romance. Never do his parents come across as anything but sincere and loving, even when they "ban" him after finding out about his lies, his brother and father still sneak some face time in, and his mother still makes his favorite biriyani as a gift. Honestly I even liked their choices of women for Kumail, but alas, the heart wants what the heart wants.
In general I liked how the movie handled parents – from Kumail's sweet and strict parents, to Emily's frantic parents, caught between their worst fear and this weird ex-boyfriend who keeps hanging around. I liked how they tried not to betray their daughter's emotions even while she was in such a dire state. Though obviously they eventually give in because they could use the extra support and aw heck, Kumail is super charming. Both sets of parents truly added a strong emotional base for the film. It was also interesting to see the two relationships juxtaposed, showing how an arranged marriage can turn out to be positive and a love marriage can fall apart – it's all a crapshoot, people.
My only complaint is that since Zoe Kazan spends most of her time as Emily in a coma it was a bit harder to get a sense of who she was. You really get to know Emily more through Kumail's emotional reaction to her than from her screen time. That said, Nanjiani is an excellent lead and really wows with his acting here. Not only do you get a nice sampling of his standup, but he also puts on the full array of human emotions in this film – you really buy that he's reliving this rollercoaster all over again. Seeing as the script was written by both Nanjiani and Gordon, it's truly a movie made with love.
All in all, a great movie but only one out of five tears; you may shed a tear for the sweetness all around, or in empathy for the parents, but this isn't going to ruin your day by any means.
Dean (2017) is the debut feature for standup comedian Demetri Martin, who both wrote and directed. It's also semi-autobiographical, as Martin lost both of his parents separately but tragically in his early 20s. The movie revolves around Dean (Demetri Martin), a New York-based illustrator, who's been drifting through life after the death of his mother. His father Robert (Kevin Kline), meanwhile, is trying his best to pick up the pieces and move on – which includes selling Dean's childhood home, something that Dean is dead-set against. While Robert starts up an innocent romance with his real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen), Dean ends up at a new low involving a drunken brawl of sorts at his ex-longterm girlfriend's wedding. In an attempt fix his life, he hops on a plane to Los Angeles where he has a bad job interview and then just decides to call up everybody he knows so he can just hang out on their couches.
After a chance encounter with attractive stranger Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) at a party, Dean's life starts to come into focus for him. He buys into the fantasy of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who will fix his life and makes the bold move of blindly getting off of his plane back to New York so he can pursue something with Nicky. Dean and Nicky enjoy a couple of days of flirtation and fun, all the while Dean dodges phone calls from his father. Yet, after their brief fling, both Dean and Nicky realize they don't know as much about each other as they thought they did. Dean finally snaps out of it and flies back to New York, heartbroken. While back home, after learning that his childhood home has already been sold, he finally reconnects with his father.
I'm a longtime fan of Demetri Martin and I was really blown away by how sweet, touching and laugh-out-loud funny this was. Dean is like the best of Martin's stand up mixed with a more vulnerable and emotional side that you don't ever really get from his act. In fact I'd go ahead and say this was an excellent deadpan comedy until the last fifteen minutes where I then had to hold back tears.
Instead of dealing with the lead up to death, Dean is a movie about living day-to-day with grief and how it can create its own parallel world that feels oppressive and grey. But it's also a movie about the stark realities of adulthood, the complexities of all relationships – from romance to familial – and a rather amusing dig at cat people. I loved all of his drawings that are peppered throughout the film, helping to transition between scenes and set the mood. I even loved the Cat Stevens-esque low-fi soundtrack that was honestly a little too on the nose but still completely worked for this sort of film.
Two and a half out of five tears, if you're feeling down or you recently experienced the death of a loved one, you'll cry by the end.
Okay, here's the big tear guns. Other People (2016), which came out last September, was written and directed by Chris Kelly – the current co-head writer at SNL, and the author of some of your favorite skits. Kelly's debut is also a semi-autobiographical tear-jerker based on his experience with his mother's death from cancer.
Other People tells the story of David (Jesse Plemons), a 29-year-old comedy writer, moving back home to Sacramento to take care of his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) as she's suffering from advanced cancer. David's also struggling with a recent breakup with his boyfriend, something he's not able to discuss with his conservative family – including a father who refuses to "accept" his son's sexual orientation. Joanne eventually gives up on chemotherapy, and the second half of the movie is simply about her slow decline to death, and how each family member comes to terms with it and each other.
Other People is a beautiful and deeply depressing portrait of a young man struggling with the helplessness of watching both his mother and his childhood die at the same time. Chris Kelly did such a fantastic job writing and directing this; it's obviously a personal story but it taps into relatable universal themes as well. The title refers to a line of dialogue in which Jesse says he thought terminal cancer was the type of thing that happened to "other people," a line spoken in sad, helpless realization as opposed to resentment. It's such an honest sentiment; in a world where we have entire months and pink drill bits dedicated to cancer awareness it's funny how a cancer diagnosis can still be shocking when it happens to your family – even more so when they're terminal.
Other People also perfectly portrays that backpedaling, rip-tide feeling of being sucked back in a role you outgrew years ago; comfortable, familiar and yet completely wrong. Beyond the death of his mother, the second theme of the film is really Jesse coming back to his hometown and reconfirming to himself why he was so happy to leave in the first place. Kelly really captures that sinking feeling you get once time has passed and your own previous life has somehow become "other" to you – as if you suddenly realized that every standard you've been measuring by has been wildly off this entire time and you never noticed until now. It's funny how much we grow without noticing.
Molly Shannon is absolutely brilliant as the mother, she captures each up and down with grace and subtly. I'd go ahead and say its impossible to watch this movie without weeping at least four times, all due to her performance. It's a simple but powerful movie, with some genuine laughs in there – typically at the expense of suburban living – along with the tears.
Five out of five tears, I dare you to watch this and not sob several times.