Movie Review: Cross-cultural romance runs up against “The Big Sick”

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It’s not a fatal failing in “The Big Sick” that its star, co-writer and inspiration, Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani, isn’t the funniest thing in it.

He almost is, right up until Holly Hunter and Ray Romano arrive, delivering the seemingly effortless laughs that Nanjiani’s strained deadpan can’t quite manage. As consolation, he was the big laugh in “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” so somebody owed him an upstaging or two.

But this Judd Apatow production, culled from Nanjiani’s life, career and love, isn’t really about the laughs. It’s a culture-clash farce with dramatic overtones, a romantic dramedy about arrested development and how the intensity of a life-threatening illness focuses the mind, sets priorities and makes the timid brave and Peter Pans (most stand-ups) into men.

Nanjiani plays Kumail, a struggling Chicago stand-up whose act underlines why he’s struggling. Yes, he’s got cute Pakistani “fish out of water” jokes, history lessons and the like. His family of ex-pats have moved to America determined to keep Pakistan and Islam in their hearts and traditions, and are good for some material.

But he’s not truly “exposing” himself up there. He’s a little too content to “Didya ever notice?” He’s happy to diss his fellow wannabes and trot out a pen and a napkin, writing out “This is your name in Urdu” to any woman in the club whose attention he fancies.

Emily, played by the big-eyed and adorable Zoe Kazan, gives him a “Does this move work?” And an “I’m not really dating right now.” But still, they connect. No, the chemistry isn’t setting-off-sparks stuff. Kazan makes it plausible, even if Nanjiani is low-heat and the obstacles set up for them are strictly Culture Clash Comedy 101.

As in, his family (Zenobia Shroff plays his mother, Anupam Kher his mother, Adeel Akhtar his married, judgmental brother) would NEVER approve of this romance. They are Muslims, and the only coupling Kumail should be thinking about is with whatever young Pakistani woman his mother trots in front of him at family dinners to pave the way for an arranged marriage. 

And truthfully, Kumail is at a make-or-break point in his showbiz dream. The real Nanjiani is 39, and on stage, his middling act is no distraction from how much older he looks than most of his “peers” (Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live” among them). It’s Montreal Comedy Festival showcase or bust, or as Mom would have it, now or never, in the form of “LSATS,” so that he can get into law school and stop “shaming the family” with his career and lifestyle choices.

Not standing up to his family doesn’t bode well for a budding romance. It’s what kills it. But that’s where “The Big Sick” turns, on a dime, into a moving melodrama. Emily gets sick, and even though they’ve broken up, Kumail is summoned to her bedside.

The medical emergency, which has her comatose, forces him to make decisions on her behalf and inform her parents (Hunter and Romano), who aren’t all that keen on having him around.

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The meat of the movie isn’t so much in the awkward moments of romance in the making, it’s in the adult fears and power struggles over decisions about someone who might die, and might die thinking Kumail is the same indecisive, gutless bust of a stand-up (and Uber driver) she broke up with.

Nanjiani inserts a hint of immigrant judgement, daring to question why people would come to America for “opportunities” for themselves and for him, and yet cling to the backwardness they were allegedly leaving behind. He addresses the “cliche” of men of color coming to America and pursuing the “white woman” ideal. But still succumbs to it himself.

The pressure, to find someone and “relax” once that life hurdle is cleared, is cleverly expressed and viewed from a totally alien (to Westerners) point of view. Arranged marriage or not, we all feel it.

Left unsaid is the patriarchal idiocy of a system that hurls a string of women — with varying degrees of beauty, wit, ambition and prospects — at a guy limited  in all those regards, and HE gets to choose.

The Oscar-winning Hunter is still a spitfire on screen, generating pathos, fury and big laughs in the space of a few moments. We know Romano’s impeccable comic timing, the slow goofy drawl that makes the simplest punchlines pay off. What’s shocking is how perfect he is at playing serious, a fragile, flawed forgiving man who is willing to accept help from a guy his daughter told him broke her heart.

Nanjiani is a generally pleasant and somewhat believable center to all this, and his flat acting (“Silicon Valley” did nothing but encourage this) is only thrown into sharp relief by the dazzling turns around him. Any reviewer who calls this “effortless” isn’t seeing him sweat, or squirming in the seat at scenes such as the stretch of playing the umpteenth movie comedy “meltdown in the drive-thru” moment, a scene worth editing out, one of several.

Because the picture also suffers from Apatow-itis — it outstays its welcome, reaches a “conclusion” a couple of times before the actual finale, which feels tacked on. Whatever you get when Judd signs on as a producer to your film, tough-love editing is never part of the deal.

But “The Big Sick” makes good use of some vintage Nanjiani 9/11 comebacks, some winning (if not new) backstage backbiting comedy club observations and marvelous, heartfelt work by three great actors who carry their leading man and his overlong, not-a-million-laughs “personal” story across the finish line.

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MPAA Rating:R for language including some sexual references

Cast:  Kumail NanjianiZoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano

Credits:Directed by  Michael Showalter, script by  Emily V. GordonKumail Nanjiani. An Amazon Studios/Lionsgate release.

Running time: 2:00

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