In 'The Big Sick' and Other Films, Zoe Kazan Evolves the Rom-Com From Within

Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick (2017) (IMDB)

In a film world where the old-school romantic comedy scarcely exists, Zoe Kazan's recent entries to the genre stand as tests of empathy and feminism.

The Big Sick

Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano
Rated: R
Writer: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-07-14
The fact that the woman in the coma tells the man to wake up is vintage Zoe Kazan.
They had plenty of good years, but the romantic comedy and Hollywood are separated. When did the happy couple break it off? There’s no single expiration date, but the rom-com as we knew it from Rosalind Russell-Cary Grant through Billy Wilder through James L. Brooks through Richard Gere-Julia Roberts through Nora Ephron is absent from today’s film calendar. Call it a collateral casualty of the film industry exorcising its middlebrow middle class this decade, but the formula of undeniable movie stars catching feelings and playing cat and mouse for two hours is dormant or dead. (You could argue the same for the ilk of movie stardom that made rom-coms a draw for so many years, but that’s a claim for another day.)

Hectic, star-crossed courtships played for laughs haven’t disappeared. They’ve just been repackaged within Master of None, You’re the Worst, Insecure and Girls, where the path to and through relationships can unfold across several years of television. On the big screen, rather than the “rom” driving the car as it once did, the “com” has taken the wheel. Rom-coms like Trainwreck serve as vehicles for comedians to grow into movie stars. And a bit further afield, there are the improv-laden ensemble indies like Sleeping With Other People and unhappy, high-concept imaginings like The Lobster.

This contemporary rom-com diaspora is rich in creativity, banter and cult of personality, yet it feels surprisingly out of conversation with the old guard. Does any movie today want to nod at Sleepless In Seattle the way Sleepless In Seattle wanted to declare its lineage from An Affair to Remember? In a word, no. But the conversation hasn’t stopped completely. Zoe Kazan wants to keep talking.

Judging by her role choices this decade, in not only the just-released The Big Sick, but also What If and Ruby Sparks, Kazan is devoted to rom-coms the way Ben Foster likes not surviving Americana shootout movies or Mark Wahlberg likes to perform suffering in docu-realism about tragedies.

For a person of her acting selectivity and writing ability (her new play After the Blast will run Off-Broadway this fall), Kazan’s appearance in three recent romantic comedies feels like a deliberate move to help evolve genre from within. Having Kazan on board is a stamp of feminism and enlightenment on a kind of movie historically undergirded by conservatism. Certainly, rom-coms have always illuminated the gender politics of their day, but they also have a knack for reigning in the heroine’s ideas of independence. Katherine Hepburn was a beacon of early 20th century feminism, but she still found herself remarrying C.K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story.

Eighty years later, the sexual adventures that begin Trainwreck show the arc of history bending toward personal freedom, but the film still posits Amy’s life would be vastly improved if she quit the bar scene and settled down with her surgeon boyfriend. The face of the rom-com changes just as reliably as its ultimate intention never does. Kazan’s resulting task is tall: How does one choose or make movies in which a woman retains freedoms within narrative structures that have long made her surrender them?

Kazan’s success in this filmic mode is the result of acting skill more than star power. Whether across from Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Dano or Daniel Radcliffe, she’s terrific at performing genuine affection toward her scene partner at the same time as demarcating her individuality. A crafty returner in the game of dialogue tennis, she’s not there to be tamed, calmed or dulled. No, Kazan characters demand something more of her men, not the other way around. To be with her, the other had better evolve into a more mature, conscientious person, not just a nicer, more polished dude.

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick (IMDB)2017)

That bond of an authentic relationship is at the center of this summer’s The Big Sick, in which Kazan plays comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s real-life spouse and film co-writer Emily V. Gordon. Emily and Kumail meet in Chicago. She’s chasing a master’s degree, and he’s a stand-up waiting on a break. Blocking their being together are Kumail’s Pakistani-American family, which forbids him to date outside the faith and culture, and Gordon falling into a coma not long into their relationship. Herein, Kazan’s mandate seems clearer and tougher than ever. She must inhabit a character with real-world agency, even if that character spends half the movie on a ventilator.

To begin with, Emily and Kumail aren’t written as craving a relationship so much as their serendipitous chemistry makes it a pleasure for them both -- you know, how most good relationships begin. While she had nothing to do with the script, it’s no surprise when Kazan’s best lines call out the patriarchal pitfalls of dating. “I love it when men test my taste,” she retorts when Kumail tries to rivet Emily with his favorite campy horror flick, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It’s a quintessential Kazan rebuke, one that tells her film partner to straighten up both personally and politically.

That personal-political intersection defines the best of Kazan’s rom-coms. As evidenced in her screenplay for 2012’s Ruby Sparks, Kazan is keenly aware of how such movies have historically bent women characters to men’s desires. In Ruby Sparks, a creatively paralyzed, sad sack writer magically manifests his ideal girlfriend from the pages of his new novel. Her character more or less is the manuscript. This genie-via-typewriter, the titular Ruby, deconstructs male artistic fantasy by doing everything short of declaring, “I’m a manic pixie dream girl archetype.” The writer Calvin has dreamt her up in colorful tights and sundresses, with a breathy and lilting soprano, a love of Humphrey Bogart and a willingness to gallivant through parks. It looks like she’s always a quarter of the way into a twirl. Across from her real-life partner Paul Dano, Kazan relishes in escalating her intentional caricature of femininity in the same way Dano leans into the murkiness of being both the film’s supposed hero and a manipulator who thinks he’s the hero.

Modeled after the Pygmalion myth, the film’s cuteness runs interference for how deeply upsetting it becomes. As Calvin adjusts Ruby’s moods and needs with his typewriter keys, the screenplay’s brilliance lies in whether the audience can keep track of its subversion even as the film is counting on us failing in this endeavor. That way, we’re horrified at having been touched emotionally at any point by a relationship that’s actually psychological slavery. “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real,” Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) lectures him. It’s a foreboding warning for male writers, uttered by the film’s broad-shouldered bro no less, but most of Ruby Spark feels like a warning. It’s an exaggeration of male fantasy -- in its climax, Ruby is made to bark like a dog and weep through a striptease -- but the point is that this girlfriend experiment has been immoral the entire time, not just when taken to its brutal conclusion. It’s a romantic comedy by way of a sobering illusion, no matter what the rapturous final scenes would imply about Calvin deserving a second chance at love. (The film’s near-fatal flaw is that ends up awfully kind to him.)

Now, Kazan isn’t always a post-modern cartographer of the genre. Sometimes, she’s just a soldier for a decent cause. In What If, she teams with Daniel Radcliffe for the most traditional romance of her oeuvre, basically When Harry Met Sally recast for wayward Canadian millennials. Kazan plays a professional animator, Chantry, who’s in a long-term relationship but could use a pal. Radcliffe plays that pal, Wallace, who wonders from their meet-cute onward if not pursuing this women makes him less of a man. Kazan is the figure of attraction here, but her professional ambitions are noticeably foregrounded, as is the more important question of whether Wallace hiding his true feelings is actually dehumanizing Chantry. Otherwise, What If flutters pretty willingly into the realm of twee. It’s the weakest of Kazan’s rom-com resume, mostly because it hinges on romantic destiny. These people should be together forever because there’s something between them, damn it.

In this sense, the driving force of the rom-com is difficult to alter or conquer. Barring toxic chemistry between the leads or the ending of Annie Hall, most rom-com audiences will want the protagonists to end up a couple. The overpowering will of the viewer to experience that catharsis has helped many a movie defy logic and likelihood in its third act.

The Big Sick is one of the most empathetic and generous movies of its kind in years because it knows this leap in logic is coming. It tries to head off the problem by letting Emily admonish Kumail for thinking she was won over by all the good deeds he performed during her coma. Sure, he was a real gentleman in the hour of screen time he spent supporting and humoring her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), but Emily was out cold. Now, are they able to overcome that? They’re married in real life so take an educated guess, but the fact that the woman in the coma tells the man to wake up is vintage Zoe Kazan.

The 33-year-old actress is not waging war on the rom-com, just fighting to change some of its conventions. The tales of modern love she supports propose there’s a more honorable, ethical way of arriving at the reconciliation audiences seek. When that moment is reached as charmingly as it is in The Big Sick (with a concluding line reminiscent of Before Sunset), the couple is left looking optimistically down the road of their lives, ready to make mistakes in their love. You won’t catch Kazan characters making out on a bridge or skyscraper as the credits are about to rain onto the screen. More likely, they will have a contained moment, share a look and trust the viewers: their hope will do the work.

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