Just what the doctor ordered: a charming and thoughtful summer comedy.
Romance and comedy work together beautifully on film: love is innately ridiculous after all! But mix in a dramatic element – particularly a serious medical emergency – to a Rom Com and you walk a dangerous line between on the one hand letting the drama overwhelm the comedy ( “Well! I don’t feel like laughing now!”) and on the other hand diverging into shockingly mawkish finger-down-the-throat sentimentality. Fortunately the new comedy – “The Big Sick” – walks that line to perfection.
Kumail Nanjiani plays (who’d have thought it?) Kumail, a Pakistani-born comic-cum-Uber-driver struggling to get recognised on the Chicago comedy circuit. His performances mix traditional stand-up at a club with a rather po-faced one-man show where he explains at length the culture of Pakistan (Naan-splaining?), including intricate detail on the fielding positions and strategies of cricket. Kumail is heckled during a show by the young and perky Emily (Zoe Kazan, the middle daughter from “It’s Complicated”). Lust blossoms (mental note: stand up comedy seems a fabulous strategy for picking up women) and lust turns to romance as the pair grow closer to each other.
Unfortunately Kumail is aware of something Emily isn’t: his strictly Muslim parents Sharmeen and Azmat (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Schroff) believe in arranged marriages to ‘nice Pakistani girls’ and a relationship with – let alone a marriage to – Emily risks disgrace and familial exile. A medical crisis brings Kumail further into dispute, this time with Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
Stand-up is, I assert, a very nationalistic thing. It is a medium hugely dependant on context and while I’m sure great British comics like Peter Kay and Eddie Izzard might rate as only a 4 or a 5 out of 10 for most Americans, so most American stand-up comics tend to leave me cold. And perhaps it’s also a movie-thing, that stand-up on the big screen just doesn’t work well? Either way, the initial comedy-club scenes rather left me cold. (And I don’t think most of them were SUPPOSED to be particularly bad – since they seemed to fill the seats each night). As a result I thought this was a “comedy” that wasn’t going to be for me.
But once Nanjiani and Kazan got together the chemistry was immediate and palpable and the duo completely won me round. Kazan in particular is a vibrant and joyous actress who I would love to see a lot more of: this should be a breakout movie for her.
Broader, but none less welcome, comedy is to be found in Kumail’s family home as his mother introduces serial Pakistani girls to the dinner table.
Holly Hunter (“Broadcast News” – one of my favourite films) and Ray Romano are also superb, delivering really thoughtful and nuanced performances that slowly unpeel the stresses inherent in many long-term marriages. The relationship that develops between Kumail and Beth is both poignant and truly touching.
Where the script succeeds is in never quite making the viewer comfortable about where the movie is going and whether the film will end with joy or heartbreak. And you will find no spoilers here!
So is it a comedy classic? Well, no, not quite. What’s a bit disappointing is that for a film as culturally topical as this, the whole question of Islamophobia in Trump’s America is juggled like a hot potato. Aside from one memorable scene in the club, with a redneck heckler, and an excruciating exchange about 9/11 between Kumail and Terry, the subject is completely ignored. This is a shame. The script (by Nanjiani and Emily Gordon) would have benefited enormously from some rather braver “Thick of It” style input from the likes of Armando Iannucci.
I also have to despair at the movie’s marketing executives who came up with this title. FFS! I know “East is East” has already gone, but could you have possibly come up with a less appealing title? I guess the title does serve one useful purpose in flagging up potential upset for those with bad historical experiences of intensive care. (Like “The Descendants” this is what we would term in our family #notaShawFamilyfilm).
Overall though this film, directed by Michael Showalter (no, me neither!) and produced by Judd Apatow (whose name gets the biggest billing), is a fun and engaging movie experience that comes highly recommended. A delightful antidote to the summer blockbuster season. The end titles also bring a delightful surprise (that I’ve seen spoiled since by some reviews) that was moving and brought added depth to the drama that had gone before.
More Hollywood please, more.
Fad Rating: FFFF.