The Big Sick (Movie) written by Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani ; directed by Michael Showalter; starring
Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Aktar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt
Braunohler, Myra Lucretia Taylor
It often happens: You hear people raving about a popular new movie but when you see it, you’re disappointed. In this
case, though, it worked in the opposite way. People had been telling me that they found the first half hour tedious, but they
said they were totally hooked when the major plot crisis kicked in. I, however, loved it right from the start. The onset of
the huge problem in the narrative didn’t make such a big difference to me. That could be because I knew what was coming.
You probably do too, if you’ve read anything about this movie. But Dilettante’s Diary is not the place
where we give away any plot information unnecessarily. So let’s just say that this movie is about a thirty-something
Pakistani (Kumail Nanjiani) living in Chicago; he drives for Uber to make a living but his passion is stand-up comedy.
After his gig at a club one night, he meets up with a feisty, humourous young American woman (Zoe Kazan). Their relationship
proceeds sporadically with both of them insisting that this can’t be happening. Meanwhile, his parents are forcing nice
Pakistani women on him in the expectation that this will lead to the appropriate marriage, i.e. one arranged by the parents.
It would be one of the biggest understatements in the history of arts criticism to say that this theme – young love
threatened by family allegiances – is common. A doomed pair from Verona, anyone? Just one other example: Late Marriage,
an Israeli film of a few years ago, features a bachelor who’s deeply involved with a divorced mother but his
parents keep trying to foist a more "proper" wife on him. So it’s not the idea itself that makes The Big Sick
work so well. I think much of the credit for the movie’s success goes to Mr. Nanjiani. Not only is he the star and co-writer,
along with Emily Gordon, his wife, but this is their own true story. My understanding (from a New Yorker article) is
that he happened to be telling Judd Apatow about his experience and the producer responded: "That sounds like a movie." Hence,
The Big Stick.
Mr. Nanjiani carries the movie largely. He’s lucky in coming to the big screen at this point in our culture, in that
he has the opportunity to give us a leading man not quite like any other that we’ve had before. He has the charm, good
looks and self-deprecating humour of many contemporary male stars but there’s also that edgy quality that comes from
his being from outside mainstream Western culture. How many comedians can joke about being taken for a terrorist? Watching
him, we feel that we’re getting to know somebody different and our conscience tells us that, given the state of world
affairs, this is probably a kind of person we should try to know better.
Fortunately, we like what we see. He’s can dish out his wicked wit so gently that it goes down like syrup. For instance,
when somebody tells a joke that bombs, then tries to explain it, Mr. Nanjiani responds quite nicely: "I like to have jokes
explained to me" [not an exact quote]. You almost think he could be telling the truth. Or, at least, you’re satisfied
that the person he’s talking to probably hasn’t noticed the barb hidden in the remark. Now that Mr. Nanjiani has
scored a huge success with this movie, let’s hope he doesn’t get over-used as happens to so many young stars whose
unique personalities often grow stale through over-exposure.
Another thing that makes the movie work so well is that Zoe Kazan isn’t a drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood type. She’s
a moderately attractive, pleasant young woman who could be your niece or the girl next door. That helps to make the somewhat
unconventional relationship feel real. She isn’t the kind of princess who would be hold out for a knight in shining
armour; she looks like she’d be willing to take a bit of a risk on this outsider.
Every other part in the movie is brilliantly cast and beautifully acted. Mr. Nanjiani’s pals in the comedy club (Bo
Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler) make us feel exactly what it’s like to be those people in that place at that
time in their lives. The parents on the two sides of the love relationship add a lot to the movie’s dynamic. His parents
(Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) have the smaller roles but they’re absolutely convincing as the ambitious mom and dad
who try to go along with their son’s quirky affinity for Americanisms – if only he’ll do the right thing
marriage-wise. Her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are worth a movie on their own. Their relationship, already somewhat
frayed, comes under greater stress as a result of the movie’s big plot point. The dad is an ordinary sort of guy, a
math teacher, who tries to do the decent thing when caught in difficult circumstances but doesn’t have the savoir faire
to carry it off with much finesse. (He can’t tell a joke, either.) Holly Hunter makes a searing impression as a woman
who’s seething with so much rage that she can barely spit out the required niceties. (Surely a nomination for best actress
in a supporting role here.)
One way of signalling the movie’s appeal would be to say that it triumphs gloriously over that abysmal title. (You’d
think a producer would have nixed that.) Scene after scene is original and captivating. One very brief one involves only one
line: "Are you her husband?" As that question is repeated several times, it has the effect of going much deeper than some
of the most elaborate speechifying in any movie. If you think about this movie too much, though, you might begin to notice
that the complications keep piling up at an almost incredible rate. And a few of the situations strike a slightly implausible
note. For instance, the Holly Hunter character’s sudden change of attitude towards Mr. Nanjiani. And, his behaviour
at a comedy club where he drops a huge bomb one night, which doesn’t seem like the kind of thing this character would do.
But the movie doesn’t stop long enough to let you make those kinds of judgements. It’s not meant to get you
thinking. It doesn’t propose anything that hasn’t already come to your mind. It takes you into Rom-Com territory
that’s, on the whole, pretty familiar. But it does so with tremendous class and charm. Take that biryani dish delivered
in a tupperware container at a crucial moment towards the movie’s conclusion. In a stroke of genius, it sums up the
complicated mixture of love and anger running through so much of life.
Blueprints for St. Louis (Short Fiction) by Ben Marcus, The New Yorker, Oct 2/17
We start with a woman named Ida thinking about her cooling relationship with Roy, her husband. There’s an appalling
diffidence to her attitude. Her thoughts are sprinkled with careless, dismissive "whatever’s." This makes for discomfiting
but gripping reading. The piece goes on to talk mostly about a monument that Roy and Ida have been designing as a memorial
following a terrorist attack (fictional, I presume) in St. Louis. That leads to speculation on the difficulty, the implausibility
– even the absurdity – of trying to convey a suitable commemoration of such a horror. The thoughts here are intriguing
in a philosophical, somewhat abstract way, but the writing became less interesting for me because we’d lost focus on
Ida and Roy’s relationship.
However, Ida’s thoughts at end of the story hit me with a force of truth that you don’t often get in fiction:
"Our desire for sense and order, our sentimental belief that we are not hurtling through space in tiny pieces, has served
as a kind of biological propaganda for our visual apparatus, leading us to the sentimentalized, so-called whole world on view
in front of us." She wonders if someone will come along who sees the world of speeding pieces just as it is. "Wasn’t
that bound to happen, and what on earth, she thought, as she watched everyone walking past her into the mirage, was taking