Boy meets girl, and girl meets ghost

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

The Big Sick is not a ti­tle that would lure me to the cinema, but please don’t let it de­ter you from see­ing this gen­er­ally de­light­ful au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal rom-com. De­scribed by lead ac­tor and co­screen­writer Ku­mail Nan­jiani as “an awk­ward true story”, the film is set in Chicago where Nan­jiani, a mem­ber of a close-knit Pak­istani Mus­lim fam­ily, has taken his first steps to in­te­grate as an Amer­i­can, mov­ing out of the fam­ily home into a scrungy apart­ment he shares with Chris (Kurt Braunohler) and work­ing as Uber driver and (horrors!) stand-up co­me­dian.

He still du­ti­fully at­tends fam­ily meals and tells his par­ents that he prays reg­u­larly, al­though he doesn’t. His mother in­vari­ably or­gan­ises el­i­gi­ble Pak­istani girls to “drop in”, but Nan­jiani isn’t in­ter­ested, es­pe­cially af­ter he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a char­ac­ter based on Emily V. Gor­don, the film’s co-writer and Nan­jiani’s wife. It’s lust at first sight and they spend a night to­gether, but she doesn’t (she says) want a long-term re­la­tion­ship. But of course she does re­ally and soon they’re in­sep­a­ra­ble — un­til she dis­cov­ers he hasn’t told his fam­ily about her and that, deep down, he is re­signed to en­ter­ing into a tra­di­tional ar­ranged mar­riage.

Not long af­ter Emily leaves him, she’s felled by what is first thought to be a form of flu but that turns out to be much more se­ri­ous (hence the film’s odd ti­tle) and the news brings her par­ents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Ro­mano), from North Carolina. In con­trast to Ku­mail’s par­ents, they know all about his re­la­tion­ship with their daugh­ter and Beth, es­pe­cially, wants noth­ing to do with him.

Be­cause this is all based on ac­tual events — with, no doubt, some fic­tional em­bel­lish­ment — the film’s great­est strength is its be­liev­abil­ity. These are real char­ac­ters liv­ing real lives, and the hu­mour — much of it is ex­tremely funny — is rooted in this re­al­ity.

The per­for­mances are su­perb. Nan­jiani plays him­self in a re­laxed and charm­ing man­ner, while Kazan is so ter­rific as the lively Emily that we miss her al­most as much as Ku­mail does when she’s con­fined to a hos­pi­tal bed. Hunter gives one of her finest per­for­mances as the volatile Beth (there’s a great scene in which she con­fronts an oafish heck­ler who, in the mid­dle of Ku­mail’s stand-up rou­tine, shouts out “Go back to ISIS!”), and Ro­mano is touching as Terry (his idea of small talk with Ku­mail is to ask, “What do you think of 9/11?”). Ev­ery mem­ber of Ku­mail’s con­ser­va­tive but lov­ing fam­ily is beau­ti­fully por­trayed, as are his friends in the stand-up com­edy com­mu­nity. Deal­ing as it does with re­la­tion­ships be­tween Mus­lims and “or­di­nary” Amer­i­cans at this par­tic­u­lar time, the film can be said to have as­sumed an im­por­tance rare for a ro­man­tic com­edy. It’s a shame, then, that like so many of Judd Apa­tow’s films it’s se­ri­ously over­long. Some ju­di­cious prun­ing would have made a ter­rific film even bet­ter. Movies about ghosts, as op­posed to tra­di­tional hor­ror movies, have been a mixed bunch. On the one hand we’ve had the var­i­ous adap­ta­tions of Ham­let and A Christ­mas Carol with their ghostly vis­i­tors sup­ply­ing in­for­ma­tion or dire warn­ings to their hu­man con­tacts. Some of the most chilling English-lan­guage thrillers have been set in haunted houses, among them The Un­in­vited (1944), The In­no­cents (1961) and The Haunt­ing (1963). Some ghost movies, such as Ghost (1990), have been hugely suc­cess­ful, and there have been pop­u­lar franchises such as the Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity and Scream films. On a smaller scale, there’s prob­a­bly never been a creepier ghost film than the Bri­tish Dead of Night (1945), though more re­cent Aus­tralian low-bud­get ef­forts Lake Mungo and The Babadook are pretty im­pres­sive too. Then there are all those Asian ghost movies. Still, I doubt there has ever been a movie about a ghost as sim­ple, weird and strangely af­fect­ing as David Low­ery’s A Ghost Story.

I was in­trigued to see the third fea­ture from the di­rec­tor who made the thriller Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints (2013) which, like A Ghost Story, stars Rooney Mara and Casey Af­fleck, and last year’s Dis­ney kids’ film Pete’s Dragon. In the new film the first thing that strikes you is the way it looks: Low­ery has filmed it in the old­fash­ioned 4x3 ra­tio that was the norm be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion of wide screens, and he even has curved the im­ages of the frame to make it look a lot like a home movie. In keep­ing with this cin­e­matic throw­back to an ear­lier era is the fact the film is most de­cid­edly not a hor­ror movie. No one is go­ing to be scared by the ghost that ap­pears reg­u­larly dur­ing the course of the film. It’s just not that kind of movie. Ac­tu­ally, it’s not easy to de­scribe just what kind of movie it is: Low­ery has said that he’s in­flu­enced by min­i­mal­ist Thai di­rec­tor Apichat­pong Weerasethakul, and any­one who’s seen the work of that dis­tinc­tive au­teur will spot the con­nec­tions.

The open­ing scenes in­tro­duce us to a cou­ple in love. We don’t know their names (in the clos­ing cred­its they’re iden­ti­fied as C and M) but we re­spond to their af­fec­tion for one an­other. Their lives seem con­tent, al­though a strange bang in the mid­dle of the night gives them a mo­ment of alarm. One day there’s a fa­tal ac­ci­dent and C is killed. The be­reaved M re­turns to the mod­est house where they lived, ac­com­pa­nied by C’s ghost. At the screen­ing I at­tended there was laugh­ter when the ghost first ap­peared, and that’s un­der­stand­able: Low­ery doesn’t make any at­tempt to em­ploy vis­ual or spe­cial ef­fects of any kind. The ghost is C cov­ered in a white bed­sheet that has holes cut to al­low him to see

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