Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Kumail Nanjiani is a very funny guy but he also might just break your heart and then mend it. He and his real-life wife Emily Gordon met in Chicago and weeks into their courtship she was placed into a medically induced coma to combat a mysterious unknown infection. She could have died (spoiler alert: she didn’t), and months after she and Kumail married. It’s a very unconventional relationship story (boy gets girl, girl gets coma, boy and girl get together) and the basis of The Big Sick. This romantic comedy, written by Nanjiani and Gordon, was a smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is now expanding across the nation. This is a born crowd-pleaser, one of the funniest films in years, and a heart-warming reminder of the pleasures of rom-coms done well.
Kumail (Nanjiani) is a Chicago stand-up comedian trying to catch his big break. He falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student in psychology. They try and keep things casual but cannot help growing closer to one another. Kumail’s traditional Pakistani family is adamant he marry a Pakistani girl, enough that there’s always one unexpectedly “in the neighborhood” during family dinners with their son. They would never approve Kumail marrying an American woman, and this stops him from introducing Emily to his parents. Kumail and Emily fight, break up, and it’s shortly thereafter that Emily is put into a medically induced coma. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are thankful but wary of Kumail at first, feeling his attention is no longer required on the matter. As the days turn into weeks, Kumail finds himself growing closer to Emily and her parents in the process.
The Big Sick succeeds wildly because it gets the most fundamental principal of storytelling right: we care about the characters. Over the course of the film, you grow attached to Kumail and Emily and their very unorthodox situation. We want them to find happiness and, more importantly in a rom-com genre, we want them to find it with each other. The characters in the movie are beautifully rendered and relatable. Their faults and relationship troubles aren’t the stuff of contrived drama but recognizable differences and cross-cultural pressures of acceptance and disappointment. He may be a stand-up comedian, and she may have fallen into a coma for an unknown medical reason, but you will relate to both of these people. They don’t feel like archetypes. Even as Kumail is making amends for his mistakes the movie doesn’t paint him as a saint worth automatic forgiveness. Considering this was written by the real-life Emily, it should be no spoiler to state that she does eventually come out of that coma. Her life is automatically better and while Kumail has only grown more steadfast in his feelings for her, Emily was asleep. For her, it’s like moments after they broke up due to an incompatible future. She’s thankful for what Kumail has done but she doesn’t want to be with him. That’s the second act break, folks. A lesser movie would have Emily’s awakening serve as its climax and everything would be hunky-dory while an earnest pop-rock song would play over. With The Big Sick, the last act is dealing with the consequences of her coma, and Emily is allowed her agency once more to make decisions all her own. It’s easy to project a progression of romance onto a static being, but she needs to travel at her own speed and on her own terms. I won’t lie; the final act produced some meaty tears from me.
Another hallmark of Judd Apatow productions that I don’t think gets enough acclaim is the sheer generosity of the screenwriting. These movies spread out the love to a wide ensemble of characters that deserve consideration. There are stock comedy types that pop in for the occasional easy laugh, like David Alan Grier’s coked-out club owner or Kurt Braunohler as the painfully inept comedian, but as a whole The Big Sick offers a welcomed kindness to its larger cast. Even Kumail’s arranged dates are given the opportunity to come across like people, particularly Khadija (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell) who is tired of not being able to enjoy what seems so easy for others. The fussy Pakistani family is played to be stern and uncompromising but they too have their moments. They are worried about losing their sense of culture through full assimilation, and they have an alternate view of family, one that involves self-sacrifice for the whole. The best additions to the movie are Emily’s parents. They don’t initially know what to make of Kumail but they eventually bond to him in different ways. Beth is fighting to control something out of her control and Terry is trying to keep everything calm. There is still lingering discomfort buried in their marriage from past indiscretions, and during times of crises it can reappear, forcing Kumail into an unexpected position. The movie’s sense of people is so warm-hearted and open, you just want to spend more time with them all, and it’s a simple yet beautiful pleasure to watch them connect.
Oh my lord is this movie funny too, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has seen Nanjiani’s standup routines before (extra points for not overly relying upon standup in the film for easy jokes). I was laughing from start to finish and there’s a consistent placement of jokes doled out in regular intervals. And when I was laughing it was the room-clearing guffaws. I can’t remember a movie in recent years that had me laughing as hard. Nanjiani’s deadpan is a thing of beauty and his comic timing is razor-sharp, and yet his sense of humor doesn’t detract from the weightier moments. Because the movie has such a heavy life-and-death backdrop, it’s important to have release valves for the audience, and that’s what the diligent comedy allows. It’s a bittersweet sense of comedy that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character and the weight of the drama. In fact the least funny parts in the film are likely the standup comedy friends, though no fault to Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, both generally very funny people.
Nanjiani (TV’s Silicon Valley) is a pleasant surprise as a dramatic actor. There are some very dramatic moments when his character is unburdening himself of regrets, fears, and frustrations, and Nanjiani is terrific, pooling emotions you didn’t think were so readily available in his acting toolkit. He makes Kumail a likeable and charming man. There’s also an undercurrent of conflict avoidance, not wanting to upset his conservative family, which leads to holding onto secrets. It’s a flaw that provides an instant direction for character growth, going from avoidant to assertive. Kazan (Ruby Sparks) has the tougher job considering she’s sidelined for half of the movie. Her portrayal of Emily is winsome without falling into a dangerously quirky territory (no Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Thankfully, she’s allowed her agency after waking from the coma, and her scenes with Kumail afterward walk that delicate line of emotions that leave us hanging. Hunter (Batman vs. Superman) and Romano (TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond) are both wonderful. They serve as a form of Emily proxies and when Kumail grows closer to them, and they grow closer to him, it feels like this small support group is becoming an appealing team.
The Big Sick is a big crowd-pleaser, lifted to great heights by terrific acting, writing, and direction from Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris). The director actually lampooned rom-com clichés in the hilarious satire, They Came Together, so having someone as instinctively skilled like Showalter guide the production helps steer away from the more expected genre moments. There are a handful of moments that feel pulled in from the Hollywood version of this story (Kumail’s big break timed with a very personal crossroads) but it mostly works on its own terms. These people are layered, allowed to be flawed and interesting human beings. It’s an unsentimental movie that finds ways to big emotions that feel completely earned. If you’re ailing for an enjoyable, funny, and heart-warming movie that respects your intelligence, try The Big Sick.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The early frontiersmen lead difficult, backbreaking struggles as they migrated west to start anew. The pioneers had a perilous journey, and judging from Meek’s Cutoff, they had a hard time asking for directions. We follow a wagon train hopelessly lost in Eastern Oregon, blindly hoping they are getting ever closer to water. This awful movie feels about as adrift as the characters. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) recreates pioneer life in obsequious detail, which means that for most of the interminably long 104 minutes we’re watching characters walk. And walk. And walk. Hey, now they’re doing something, nope back to walking. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) has the most personality of this taciturn bunch, but I couldn’t have cared less about her lot. The movie is practically indignant about the narrative demands an audience has for its movies. This is not some arty examination on the treacherous nature of the human spirit, or some conceited claptrap like such. And in a growing trend of 2011 Sundance films, Meek’s Cutoff ends absurdly abrupt, just as the characters appeared at a crossroads and on the verge of mercifully doing something interesting. Instead, Reichardt ritualistically kills the movie on this spot, robbing the audience of any payoff after 104 minutes of fruitless and tiresome artistic masturbation. If I wanted to watch a recreation of frontier life without any regard to character or story, I’d watch the History Channel. This is an exasperating, maddening, crushingly boring movie that makes you feel trapped on that misbegotten wagon train.
Nate’s Grade: D
Josh Radnor’s (How I Met Your Mother) writing/directing debut reads like a heavy order of sitcom plots rolled into one tight space. There’s enough New York navel-gazing to fill up a spate of twee indie films. There’s Sam (Radnor), a struggling writer prone to relationship problems, having a three-night stand with Mississippi (Kate Mara), a waitress/cabaret singer. There’s Sam’s cousin, Mary (Zoe Kazan), is being pressured to move to L.A. by her boyfriend (Pablo Schrieber). Sam’s best friend Annie (Malin Akerman) suffers from dating the wrong kind of guys. She also suffers from alopecia, which makes her hairless (doesn’t sound like a deal-breaker to me). She’s being pursued by a suitor, Sam #2 (Tony Hale), a good man who acknowledges he’s not exactly a lady’s first image when it comes to Mr. Right. If this wasn’t enough plot to fight over for 100 minutes, Sam becomes an unlikely caretaker to a young child, Rasheen (Michael Algeri), left behind on a subway. The kid refuses to go back to foster care so he just sort of becomes Sam’s pet. Actually, the child is a plot device to facilitate Sam’s maturity and personal growth, which is why he all but disappears in the film’s second half dominated by romantic drama. Radnor is a relaxed presence onscreen. As a director, he knows a thing or two about pleasing shot compositions. As a writer, he has a good feel for droll observation (“Don’t make me run, kid, I’m almost thirty,” had me ruefully chuckling). As with most ensemble movies, some storylines are stronger than others; the Annie/Sam #2 stuff could have been its own movie. Both actors, Hale especially, are winning. Mara is sexy and a star in the making. The Mary stuff would have been better left alone. Kazan’s performance is somewhat irritating, and my interest sunk every time her face came onscreen. And yet, the film is carried by a sweetness that doesn’t tilt into saccharine. Given some of the sitcom-level setups, this could have spilled into eye-rolling cuteness (a girl named after the poorest state in the nation!). It’s romantic in a somewhat cheesy way but that’s part of its charm. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but happythankyoumoreplease rolls agreeably along thanks to being earnest, but not too earnest, and witty without being overly whimsical.
Nate’s Grade: B-
This movie beguiles me. I watched it over a month ago and I am still turning it over in my brain, and not just for the fact that I get it confused with the similar sounding yet also disappointing Reservation Road. It’s another movie that presents the suburbs as a prison of bourgeoisie social moirés about how men and women are expected to live to be happy. The movie looks magnificent thanks to skilled cinematography by Roger Deakens, even if it falls back on redundant visual metaphors (look, the windows are shaped like prison bars!). The acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the unhappily 1950s married couple Frank and April Wheeler, is mostly impressive. Michael Shannon deservedly was nominated for an Oscar as an unhinged realtor’s son who cuts through all the troublesome and fake niceties. It is a terrific performance and jolts the movie with much-needed energy, somewhat like Renee Zellweger’s role in Cold Mountain. I think that’s where my biggest area of concern is: the movie is just kind of placidly dull. Watching people be miserable for most of a two-hour running time isn’t a deal-breaker, but the movie needs to have some life to it. Revolutionary Road feels just as morose and restrained as its assortment of doomed married couples eeking out an existence. Perhaps that is an achievement to be heralded for director Sam Mendes. Then again, perhaps it just means I felt purposely remote and directionless and just waited for the movie to expire.
Nate’s Grade: B-