Burying the hatchet

Adam Mars-Jones wins award for the "most trenchant book review of the past twelve months".

At a very jolly ceremony at the Coach and Horses in Soho last night, Adam Mars-Jones won the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year Award, organised by the review aggregating website The Omnivore. The prize, which rewards the "author of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months", was judged by the journalists Suzi Feay, Rachel Johnson, Sam Leith and D J Taylor.

In the winning review, of Michael Cunningham's novel By Nightfall, Mars-Jones writes:

Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references. If you're constantly referring to landmarks, it doesn't make you look as if you're striding confidently forward - it makes you look lost. ...

The book's pages are filled with thoughts about art, or (more ominously) Thoughts about Art. Since its action occupies little more than a day, the effect is highly artificial, an avalanche of compacted insights, so that Peter can see in his wife's tired beauty in the morning light "a deep, heartbreaking humanness that's the source and the opposite of art". Even when these are golden formulas - like that one - they are leaden as moments, making the narrative degenerate into a string for wise and lovely beads. ...

Two comely young people standing in the lake shallows, "looking out at the milky haze of the horizon" - that's not an epiphany, that's a postcard.

The judges also gave an honourable mention to the runner-up, the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson, for his review of Richard Bradford's biography of Martin Amis:

Martin Amis - snooker player, smoker, pithy interviewee, latter-day Napoleon of Notting Hill, sledgehammer satirist, underbelly fetishist, sporadically great novelist, victim of press intrusion and dental surgery, weepy memorialist of middle-age woes - needs a biographer who can separate the myth from the truth, who can pick through the debris of aphoristic soundbite and self-mythologising anecdote and find . . . something.

Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. ...

[Bradford's book] is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing - about spectacularly good writing.

Mars-Jones was presented with an actual hatchet by Rachel Johnson and a year's supply of potted shrimp by the award's sponsor, the Fish Society.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue