Wednesday 24 January 2018

The Big Sick movie review: 'Genuinely romantic and actually funny - an unexpected treat'


Big plus: Zoe Kazan and kumail Nanjiani are excellent in The big sick
Big plus: Zoe Kazan and kumail Nanjiani are excellent in The big sick

Paul Whitington

The advent of the dick joke, and the attendant comedic obsession with humankind’s least edifying body parts, has rendered the whole notion of a romantic comedy more or less redundant over the last decade or so.

Comedy we can do, romance also, but never in the same picture it seems. Judd Apatow, who once vowed to include a penis in every one of his movies, has a lot to answer for in this regard, yet here he is mixed up in creating the best Hollywood rom-com since Sandra Bullock’s charming 2008 hit The Proposal.

Mr Apatow is listed as producer on The Big Sick, but was instrumental in coaxing the talent of Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani to the big screen. Mr Nanjiani co-wrote the picture with his wife, Emily V Gordon, and their winning screenplay is closely based on their own remarkable story. He also stars as Kumail, an aspiring stand-up who performs regularly at a small Chicago comedy club. His likeable, but sometimes awkward, routine is based on his Pakistani childhood and his experiences as a Muslim man in America, and one night he’s fending off the usual not-so-friendly heckles when he catches the eye of a smiling young woman.

Emily (Zoe Kazan) challenges his assertion that her ill-timed hoots of approval constitute heckling, their conversation continues after the gig is over, and pretty soon they fall in love. But Emily is puzzled by his reluctance to commit, unaware that Kumail’s deeply conservative mother has been trying to set him up with nice Muslim girls for years and would have a stroke if she knew he was dating a white American.

She leaves him, and shortly afterwards, Kumail finds out that Emily has been rushed to hospital with a life-threatening lung infection.

When Kumail rushes to the hospital, he’s misidentified as Emily’s husband and gives permission for an induced coma. This lands him in trouble when Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, both excellent) turn up, and they give short shrift to the man they believe broke their daughter’s heart. It’s an absurd situation, especially for Kumail, who must endure meeting his girlfriend’s parents without actually getting to enjoy the relationship. But as their long, tense wait continues, the parents start to thaw.

There’s nothing remotely original about this storyline: one thinks of another Sandra Bullock vehicle, the underrated 1995 comedy While You Were Sleeping, in which she poses as the girlfriend of a comatose hunk she’d silently lusted after but never actually met. And the juxtaposition of stand-up comedy and love inevitably reminds one of Annie Hall.

The originality here, though, is in the cultural detail, and the earthy likeability of the two leads. Kumail sounds like he’s heard every nasty Muslim joke in the book and learned to get his retaliation in first. When Emily’s father asks him out of the blue how he feels about 9/11, Kumail pauses, then says “oh, anti, it was a tragedy — we lost 19 of our best guys”. It’s a brilliant joke, and has whizzed past you before you realise quite how good it is: The Big Sick’s script is packed with such moments.

Kumail’s hidebound parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) provide exotic cultural depth, and laughs, much as Woody Allen’s uber-Jewish folks did in Annie Hall, but Mr Nanjiani has a kinder eye, and never lampoons them or turns them into grotesques. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Kumail’s father turns up and tells his son “you’re still kicked out of the family” before handing him a container of biryani his mother has lovingly prepared for him. There are no ogres or villains in The Big Sick, just nice people totally failing to understand one another. Zoe Kazan is given just 15 minutes or so to define her pivotal character before the doctors put her under, but thereafter we never forget just how special she is. Kumail is a blunderer, a man who’s brave enough to do stand-up on a cold Monday night but shudders at the prospect of losing his family should he defy them. Nanjiani does a wonderful job of playing this thoroughly lovable version of himself.

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