Tag Archives: Michael Showalter

And the Tissue Goes To

Spoiler Alert

by Hope Madden

In 2017, Michael Showalter directed the best romantic comedy of the modern age, The Big Sick. So, even though the majority of his filmography feels like a near miss – The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Lovebirds, Hello My Name Is Doris – whatever he delivers, I want to open. Even an avowed tear-jerker, even the same week I see The Whale. I loved The Big Sick so much, I gladly signed up for two public displays of bawling.

And yet…

Spoiler Alert is Michael Ausiello’s (Jim Parsons) true tale of romance, loss and sitcom love. A TV Guide writer, Michael tended to look back on his tragic childhood as if it were an 80s sitcom, replete with life lessons and a laugh track.

Showalter stages these moments like they are right out of Gimme a Break or any of that era’s centrally located couch-and-hijinks programs. They stand out, not because they’re clever or funny, but because they don’t fit in a film that is otherwise a tender if traditionally structured tragedy.

The socially awkward Ausiello meets and quickly falls for gorgeous, fun-loving Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge). This ushers us into the sweet and odd moments (Ausiello has an extreme Smurf collection) that mark the couple’s development.

Showalter works from Dan Savage and David Marshall Grant’s adaptation of Ausiello’s book. The writers have primarily done TV – a medium clearly suited to Parsons. And here’s where the film really stumbles. Spoiler Alert is, of course, not a TV show and only feels like a TV show on occasions that pull you out of an emotional moment. Rather than creating a narrative thread or even an interesting gimmick, the TV angle distracts – sometimes quite frustratingly – from what otherwise feels like a very honest and necessary look at love.

Showalter alum and all-American gem Sally Field brings needed authenticity to the film, and Aldridge often excels as the hot Oscar to Parsons’s Felix. Plus, the sometimes frank sexuality is more than welcome.

But none of it fits. The framework – Ausiello delivering his life story as if he’s recounting a favorite TV show – is distracting at best. It robs the film of its passion and guarantees the feeling of inauthenticity. It has its moments, but it never delivers any honest laughter or tears.

Beyond Pearlygate

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

by George Wolf

Some facial prosthetics and a crap ton of makeup give Jessica Chastain the physical features of Tammy Faye Bakker, but it’s the way Chastain embodies Bakker’s sympathetic garishness that ultimately keeps your eyes on The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Tammy Faye LaValley met Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at Minnesota’s North Central Bible College in the early 1960s, but both had to drop out when they got married. Taking their endlessly upbeat sermonizing on the road, they developed a mix of song, scripture and puppet shows that was a perfect fit for television.

After launching The 700 Club for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Jim and Tammy set out to build their own empire in 1974 with the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club. The show’s massive success led to an entire PTL TV network and then to Heritage USA, a Christian-themed theme park and retreat in South Carolina.

And then, of course, it all crashed in the late 1980s, under a wave of sex scandal, bankruptcy, and Jim’s conviction on fraud and conspiracy charges.

Taking inspiration from the 2000 documentary also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, Hello My Name Is Doris) and writer Abe Sylvia (TV’s Nurse Jackie and The Affair) make this an unabashedly sympathetic portrait. And while capitalizing on Chastain’s excellence is entirely understandable, it comes at the expense of developing some other major players (Garfield’s Bakker, Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell) that could have deepened the overall context.

Only the great Cherry Jones, as Tammy Faye’s mother Rachel, is given the space for nuance, and it is this mother-daughter dynamic that gives the film its heart.

Though the Tammy Faye persona is outwardly cartoonish, Chastain shows us a woman driven to make others feel the love that she did not; a wife unafraid to fight for her seat at the table; and a Christian committed to loving, helping and forgiving. An advocate for the Gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Tammy Faye also championed social programs for the poor and even brought the subject of penile implants to Christian TV.

And all of those revelations make the moments when Showalter’s tone flirts with patronization all the more curious. Late in the film, Tammy Faye admits to “loving the camera” and a producer simply asks, “Why?” Though it lands as the moment Showalter and Sylvia have been building toward, they ultimately move past it as a frustrating afterthought.

If the goal here was to spotlight an award-worthy lead performance in an entertaining hat tip to Tammy Faye, well then mission accomplished.

But the frequent use of real news broadcasts and headlines – paired with an early look at the strategy behind Republican Jesus – make us eager for a broader context, one that The Eyes of Tammy Faye misses by a false eyelash.

Life Support

The Big Sick

by George Wolf

The Big Sick is that rare breed seldom seen in the wilds of the multiplex. It’s a smart and incisive romantic comedy that has something new and vital to say while it’s being both romantic and comedic.

It also feels incredibly authentic, probably because co-writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are telling much of their own story.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a struggling standup comedian in Chicago who can’t bring himself to tell his traditional Pakistani family about his new girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan). Family pressures eventually lead to a breakup, not long before Emily becomes hospitalized with a mysterious infection that becomes life-threatening.

Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) know all about Kumail, and they aren’t exactly thrilled with his insistence on hanging around the hospital with a visitor’s badge.

Director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, Hello My Name is Doris), is blessed with a uniformly wonderful ensemble cast, and he guides the actors through alternating levels of humor and societal insight that feel effortlessly organic.

We see a Muslim family portrayed much as any other movie family might be (imagine!), with generational conflicts that are plenty familiar, even if they manifest in unfamiliar ways. Bonus points for cleverly educating about Pakistani culture while also finding the funny in culture clash and persistent stereotypes.

Almost all the humor – be it scatalogical, corny, or suddenly dark – finds a mark, and is paired with a constant undercurrent of relatable humanity that draws us into these characters and becomes truly touching.

At times hilarious, sweet,  emotional and even heartbreaking, The Big Sick has a case of charming that will follow you home.

Let’s hope it’s catching.