Film reviews: The Big Sick | The Wall | Captain Underpants

The Big Sick finds humour and heart in the travails of dating in a way that feels fresh, while Doug Liman's Iraq-set thriller The Wall is a nerve-jangling affair

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick. Picture: Nicole Rivelli.

The Big Sick (15) ****

The Wall (15) ***

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Captain Underpants (U) ***

One of the most delightful things about The Big Sick is how casually it reinvigorates the romantic comedy. Based on star Kumail Nanjiani’s own relationship with his screenwriter wife Emily V Gordon (they wrote the movie together), it’s a film that feels so true to the realities of modern relationships that even though it’s filled with the sort of bizarre true life scenarios that sound contrived in a movie, it’s easy to relate to the complications and dilemmas they generate.

Playing a lightly fictionalised version of himself, Nanjiani (who’s probably best known for his role in the TV show Silicon Valley) plays “Kumail”, a 30-ish Pakistani-American stand-up comic who’s trying to negotiate the Chicago dating scene while simultaneously trying to deflect the efforts of his Muslim family to coerce him into an arranged marriage. For the sake of an easy life, Kumail dutifully goes on dates with the women his mother sets 
him up with, but this gets complicated when he falls for a white woman called Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she affectionately heckles him at a show. Too meek to stand-up to his family, he keeps their relationship a secret, not quite realising how unfair he’s being to Emily or his potential suitors.

As schematic as that sounds, it unfurls organically on screen thanks to Nanjiani and Kazan, who are great here at tapping into the playfully deceptive dance that new couples undertake in their desperation not to blow the relationship early on. Director Michael Showalter (who was one of the creators of this year’s hipster TV hit Search Party) also has a nice loose style, his camera frequently hanging back to give the characters room to develop.

Indeed, nothing feels forced here. Even when the film plays on our expectations of the romcom formula, it does so to upend them. Early on, 
for instance, Emily dumps Kumail when she realises his family know nothing about her, thus setting us 
up for the traditional redemptive ending where the not-yet-mature protagonist realises he’s made a mess of things and has to embark on a journey of self-discovery to fix them. Yet in The Big Sick, Kumail’s determination to win Emily back is complicated by a swift and sudden illness that leaves her in an induced coma and the film in an interesting place. Not only does Kumail have to process his own suddenly complicated feelings about Emily, which are bound up in the now potentially problematic fact that he’s trying to remain part of her life when she has no say in the matter, he also has to deal with her distraught parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), whose faltering marriage seems like it’s being held together by their shared love for their daughter.

That’s a lot for a comedy to juggle, but The Big Sick invests so much in its characters that the messiness of its real life inspiration finds a compelling parallel in the film’s refusal to transform Emily’s coma into some kind of cutesy While You Were Sleeping-style plot device. Instead Showalter – taking cues from producer Judd Apatow’s own free-flowing comedies – takes The Big Sick to some dark and uncomfortable places, fully confident that humour can be found there too. This is a film that confronts casual racism, gender politics and cultural insensitivity with the kind of sophistication not really seen outside of short-form prestige TV shows such as Master of None and Louie. But while it brings the romcom up to date by changing the surrounding landscape, it remains true to the spirit of genre in the most fundamental way: you can’t help rooting for its protagonists to get together.

Sandwiched between two Tom Cruise blockbusters – The Edge of Tomorrow and the forthcoming American Made – Doug Liman’s latest feels like something of a cinematic palate cleanser. Set in Iraq in late 2007, just as American involvement is supposedly winding down, real-time thriller The Wall homes in on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s marine as he’s pinned down by an Iraqi sniper in the baking heat of a bombed-out settlement.

With his fellow marine (played by John Cena) bleeding out and his radio damaged, Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) is soon embroiled in a battle of wits with a hyper-intelligent Iraqi sniper whose insights into the war rattle the secret-bearing American. Essentially a two-hander between Taylor-Johnson and the disembodied voice of his adversary (played by Laith Nakli), what follows is a solid example of the sort of single-location thriller – Locke, Buried, Phone Booth – that often ends up being more intriguing as a concept than a movie. Here, though, Liman keeps everything tightly wound and over the course of its brief 90-minute running time Dwain Worrell’s script presents a compelling look at how conflict is repeatedly escalated by underestimating the enemy.

Parents confronted with a movie entitled Captain Underpants might not relish the prospect of sitting through it with their kids, but this CG animated adventure – about a couple of best friends who manage (via a spot of hypnosis) to transform their mean headmaster into their own titular comic book creation – is more inventive than most animated fare this summer. Though self-aware toilet humour is its default position, there are also some surprisingly pointed gags about cuts to arts education worked into a plot that sees its ethnically diverse heroes taking on a super-villain intent on robbing the world of laughter. In some respects it’s a bit too pleased with itself, but it breezes by fast enough to make those summer holiday trips to the movies a little more bearable.