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PostPosted: Fri Jun 30, 2017 7:05 pm 
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ZOE KAZAN AND KUMAIL NANJIANI IN THE BIG SICK

Humor from life

The Big Sick is a romantic comedy whose story is powerful because it's unique and true - essentially true, anyway: it's filtered through the mentality of a stand up comic, who admittedly, as events unfold, tells a lot of lies, and in the telling is looking for humor.

In showing the lies, and in finding the humor, there is also truth. And you need the humor, given the situation. Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) discovers that he loves Emily (Zoe Kazan), the woman who will become his wife (after the story ends) by seeing her through an extremely serious illness that lands her in Intensive Care, put into a medically-induced coma to treat a life-threatening infection. Nanjiani cowrote the screenplay with his actual wife, Emily V. Gordon, who underwent this dangerous situation. The rom-com unfolds in the context of making it in America while dealing with the smothering embrace of a conservative immigrant family. In that aspect it's potentially a lot of people's story, but it may ring truest for Pakistanis living in America. There was a vibrant, attractive, young group of them at the screening I attended, and their pleasure and identification were palpable.

Unlike them, I don't understand a word of Urdu (used occasionally in the family scenes) or recognize all the amusing details of Pakistani custom. But I must admit I'd already seen a lot of Nanjiani - really a lot, about eighteen hours - as Dinesh, one of the main characters in the hilarious and smart HBO series "Silicon Valley," which just completed its fourth season. And before binge-watching that latest season, six weeks ago I also read the profile of him in The New Yorker by Thomas Marantz, "Kumail Nanjiani's Culture-Clash Comedy," which recounts his life and tells a lot about this movie. This is Mr. Nanjiani's moment. Poor Michael Showalter, the movie's director, may come off as not much more than an accessory to Nanjiani's life, his writing of it, and his performance of it. And the direction may seem somewhat generic. But with Judd Apatow producing, we can expect he has found here something both new and classic, and nobody got in the way of the basic human material.

The movie has a busy, interesting opening forty minutes focused on Kumail's situation as a stand up comic alternatingly disappointing and placating his family. He lives in a crummy Chicago flat with another aspiring comic, his life revolving round the comedy club where he hones his skills and hopes to be spotted and hangs out with his cohorts, his efforts to support himself as an Uber driver, and dinners with his parents and brother where his mother brings in an endless succession of eligible Pakistani girls who "just happen to come by" as candidates for a traditional arranged marriage that Kumail does not want. He has promised to accept such a marriage but his heart isn't in it, nor does he really plan to study law as he also promises to do. He sticks the eligible girls' photos in a cigar box that's filling up with them. The cigar box, till he ritually incinerates its contents later on, symbolizes Kumail's unwillingness to say either Yes or No decisively.

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NANJIANI, KAZAN

Kumail meets Emily (Kazan), who is white, and therefore in his parents' terms ineligible, as an audience member who yells enthusiastically at one of his stand up performances, though he points out to her that any yelling constitutes heckling, even if meant as supportive. (Here's your stand up comedy meet-cute.) They have sex, but Kumail has a "two-day rule," so they are not to have sex again, which suits her because she's not ready for commitment. The rule is broken anyway, because a spark is there, on both sides. But then Emily breaks off because Kumail has lied, avoiding meeting her parents or introducing her to his or telling them about her, and making excuses. Lying is part of Nanjiani's persona, both on the small and the big screen. So is a kind of far-away, innocent look.

This would be all very well but the movie's power comes from the crisis that follows. Emily and Kumail's neutrality is blasted by her hospital emergency: he is needed as the only person on hand at first when desperately needed to approve her medically induced coma. To sign off on it he has to pretend he's her husband - lying again, but in a good cause. Emily's parents, when they arrive, know all about Kumail from Emily already and they don't like him. But needing a confidant, her father, Terry (Ray Romano) warms to him. He's kicked out, but he comes back. Kumail, for all his lying and indecision, in adversity shows himself to be loyal and a good guy. When the worst of the ordeal is over, Emily's mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), warms to Kumail even more. Both Emily's parents are memorable. Hunter is a neurotic but tough southern mom, and Ray Romano is her blunt New York husband, who fight and come back together.

It's Emily who takes the longest to warm up to Kumail after she's of the hospital. But she does, in a final scene in New York that neatly dovetails with their original meeting. And this quiet but hopeful finale reflects the understatement and deadpan humor that characterize Kumail Nanjiani's sensibility. What I liked about this movie is the way it gently pokes fun at everybody without ever being crude or disrespectful. Kumail's "culture-clash comedy" has that universal quality of all true comedy, that it brings people together. It unifies. It's hopeful.

Nanjiani and his wife, in their story, provide far more than a rom-com with an ethnic twist. Kumail wins a wife, begins to make it in the world of comedy by moving to New York, stands up to his conservative family. "Why did you bring me to America, if you don't want me to live like an American?" he asks his father in a (quietly) impassioned speech.

The movie never strains for laughs, but is full of funny moments. Kumail continually filters the dialogue through stand up humor, but avoids overloading the film with actual stand up. A good routine: where he lists the descending order of career choices for a young Pakistani man: "doctor, engineer, lawyer, ISIS, comedian." Funny real time moment: after their first sex Emily phones for an Uber - and gets Kumail, who's next to her in bed: he's the nearest Uber driver. Kumail and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) are yelling at each other at a cafe and people stare. Kumail reassures them: "It's okay. . . we hate terrorists!" And so this particularized ethnic rom-com starts to be extremely contemporary - as well as one of the best and funniest movies of the year so far.

The Big Sick, 119 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2017, also in nearly a dozen other festivals including SxSW, Seattle, BAM and Munich. Limited US theatrical release 23 Jun. (NYC), wider 14 Jul. Released by Amazon Studios.

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RAY ROMANO AND HOLLY HUNTER IN THE BIG SICK

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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