Boy meets girl, and girl meets ghost
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