Director: Michael Showalter
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Since this is a review about an overwhelmingly honest film, here's a confession: growing up, all white actors looked alike to us. No, not the ones we knew already, of course, the famous and the familiar, but the rest. They were an interchangeable lineup of blondes and brunettes, light-eyed people hard to tell apart till they did something worth remembering. This, as you may imagine, made the opening act of many an ensemble-heavy movie significantly hard to follow, but follow we still did, gulping down whatever scraps of American pop culture belatedly found their way to our screens and our videocassette players.
Kumail Nanjiani, writer and star of The Big Sick - a landmark romantic comedy where no character could be mistaken for another - could possibly relate. Speaking of his childhood in Pakistan, the Silicon Valley actor says it differed most from life in America lies because he only got to watch one episode of Knight Rider, the second episode, and it took quite a while to get there. Later in the film he talks about how hard it is to tell the names 'Craig' and 'Greg' apart. Preach, brother.
Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick continues Apatow's worthy attempts to explore and accurately represent stand-up comedy as an American subculture. More than Funny People and Crashing, though, The Big Sick shares its DNA with romantic comedies that are classic, corny or cerebral: Notting Hill, While You Were Sleeping and - perhaps most of all, in telling ways - with the ultimate stand-up comedian romance, Annie Hall.
Ah, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Nanjiani, who shares his name with his character in a screenplay he's co-written, plays a stand-up comedian who makes a living as an Uber driver. One night, he's heckled by a bright girl with a cheshire grin called Emily. Nanjiani explains that interrupting a comedian, even to give him a compliment, is a heckle - reminding me of that time a woman yelled out in appreciation of Louis CK's boots - and while he's half-joking as he tries to strike up conversation, the point he's making isn't a joke. The best thing about Nanjiani in this film is the way he's deadpan when joking and smiling when he's serious. Almost as if the character is scared of being truly serious.
As the title might have alerted, there is a fair bit to be serious about. Emily is almost too wonderful to be true. She's a girl clever enough to know when she's being mansplained to: "I love it when men test me on my taste," she laughs, and later describes her Ghost World high school aesthetic as Beetlejuice so he would get it. Naturally, she is the one who abruptly falls deathly ill, which leaves Nanjiani to hang out with her parents in hospital silence. This would be the worst time to meet a girlfriend's parents, but Kumail has stepped in it, breaking her heart before she even went to hospital. Her parents - played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano - know this.
Kumail's parents, meanwhile, know nothing. Or want to know nothing. Played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, the Nanjianis are content in the blind belief that their son is dutifully saying his prayers before the ice-cream is served. He instead uses the five-minute timeout to fool around with a cricket bat, but does so after he's laid down the prayer mat. Kher excellently demonstrates the inability to say much, a man disallowed from expressing himself, while Shroff is the most perfectly desi mother: one who says "You're dead to me, go to Hell - but make sure you text me once you get there."
More than the children and their breezy romance, it is the adults who demonstrate how they aren't as different after all. "Again with the comedy" is Kumail's mother's regular refrain, one that sounds as Jewish as Estelle Costanza. Emily's father, meanwhile, distrusts the internet, where all symptoms lead to cancer and where they hate Forrest Gump. Even with accurately rendered characterisations, it is clear that parents are parents, and that - not the colour of their skin - is their stereotype.
At one point in his performance, Nanjiani lists the order of professions as per Pakistani parental approval: Doctor, then Engineer, then Lawyer, then (a good way away) ISIS, and then Comedian. It stunned me that he didn't mention 'IT Guy,' and then I remembered that those are the ones they import, not the ones they grow at home. If you're a brown kid born and bred in America, Engineer will do just fine. Like in the works of Aziz Ansari, Hassan Minhaj and Mindy Lahiri, there is a lot to notice here.
Showalter's direction is simple and unshowy, like a mumblecore film without the mumbling. Like his last film, Hello, My Name Is Doris, this is heartfelt and sincere without ever being cloying, but far better and more insightful because of the material it draws from. Written by Nanjiani and Emily V Wood, the screenplay - based loosely (and cleverly) on a reality you should read about only after you've watched the film - is bracingly honest. This is a film that knows what to do with a broken heart, and with a 9/11 joke.
The Big Sick amuses, illuminates and refreshes in unexpected ways. For all its originality and surprising joy, however, it is also the kind of romantic comedy we haven't seen in forever. One that would make Hugh Grant envious.