Saturday, July 15, 2017

Homesick And Culturally Off-Kilter In Chicago

Zoe Kazan as Emily and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail in "The Big Sick", written by Mr. Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.
  Amazon Studios

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, July 15, 2017

Chicago may be a very sturdy Windy City but its Pakistani players get blown away in "The Big Sick", a Judd Apatow-produced comedy-drama-romance directed by Michael Showalter.  Based on an autobiographical story scripted by actor and stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, "The Big Sick" attempts to address cultural differences in a romance between a Pakistani male comedian and a white American woman.  The film falls woefully short in this and other areas, and worse, packs other elements into a story that don't work either.

Romantic comedy these days in U.S. films, especially Hollywood films, is rarely done with any sense of intelligence or subtlety - but Mr. Nanjiani's dead-pan charisma and banter engages for some parts of a sometimes subtle film that doesn't deserve the level of commitment his personal story promises.  "The Big Sick" is proficient at the honesty and awkwardness of the romance between Kumail (Mr. Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan).  There's little sentimentality early on as the film and its editor cuts to the chase, which only makes the ending that much more hokey, desperate and rushed.

The cultural differences in a post-9/11/01 America are examined in a very perfunctory manner.  Chicago's and the director's wind blows any examination of culture off the pages of a script that likely delved deeper than the finished film shows.  In exploring the issues of cultural difference, family and assimilation in a Trump America we are left with a bigoted shout about ISIS from a white male audience member during Kumail's stand-up routine as he bids to make a big-break in his career. 

Worse is the constant apologizing Kumail does for being Pakistani.  It was depressing and angering to watch (at least for me), as is the film's one-dimentionalzing of Kumail's Pakistani family, is laden with exaggeration and racist stereotypes.  Pakistanis do not talk in such exaggerated ways - and I've talked to quite a few.  The exaggerating is a comedy cliche that has long turned cold and unfunny.  Why did "The Big Sick" have to caricature its Pakistani family?  Why didn't Mr. Showalter humanize and make them the real people that Emily's parents (solidly played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) were?  Neither that question, nor the issues "The Big Sick" portends to examine, are sufficiently answered.

All the "look-at-the-weird-crazy-Pakistani-family" effect seemed designed to make the film's white moviegoing audience feel more comfortable with them.  (The audience I was with reflexively laughed at everything.)  There's never an effort to take the Pakistani family Kumail is part of seriously.  They are the film's laughing stock, and the audience's ethnocentric projection.  One scene that tries to take the family seriously is insincere given all that has preceded it.  The dishonesty of the film regarding its exploration of cultural differences in a romantic relationship in an increasingly hostile America is the most insulting thing about it.  The incessant caricaturizing sank the film so much for me, and it never recovered to stay afloat.

The facile treatment of Kumail's family further undercuts "The Big Sick" and its mission to look at how an illness forces people to re-examine their sense of belonging and or alienation in the world.  Regrettably the illness is exploited for cynical effect in service of Hallmark card moments.  That's not to say that medically-induced comas aren't serious - they obviously are - but it is only to reinforce the idea that when it comes to seriousness only one group of people in "The Big Sick" are treated seriously and multi-dimensionally.  And that's sick, in and of itself.  The film's title may also refer to the illness of America.  (Mr. Showalter's camera also captures some tiresome comedy stage routines with a sideways lens that underscores the banality of the culture Kumail is part of.)

Emily (Ms. Kazan), who has relatively little screentime, is an enthusiastic person with charisma and a sharp sense of humor.  We barely get to know her before she's gone, a truncated figure in more ways than one.  We never learn about her struggles beyond an obvious one, and the melodrama that punctuates the film just belongs elsewhere.  (We barely get to know Kumail either, and Emily even references this point in the film.)  Some of the petty things couples differ over in "The Big Sick" are discernably retained from the screenplay by Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon.  Yet that particular authenticity alone, even with the adverse circumstances "The Big Sick" chronicles, appear to be the only part of the script that works well or has been retained for the movie. 

Terry (Mr. Romano) has his racial blindspots as a white man and does things that some white people - liberal or otherwise - often do, which is to solicit a Black person's opinion about something pertaining specifically to Black people, rather than about issues in the world in general.  Terry asks Kumail his thoughts about 9/11/01 - as if somehow Terry would expect Kumail to give a response inconsistent with prevailing conventional wisdom.  Kumail however, does Terry one better with some snappy satirical responses.  Kumail, whose family arranges prospective marriage partners for him, is a smart character, the smartest in "The Big Sick", but is also the loneliest and, dare I say, the most tragic ("mulatto", for lack of a better word) of 21st century romantic comedy. 

Only late on in Mr. Showalter's film do we get a true sense of Kumail's utterly rudderless and isolated position in Chicago, and his comedy friends and roomate only reinforce the blandness of midwestern America and the frequent roboticism of U.S. life itself - in its colloqualisms, behaviors and language.  The futility and quasi-oppression of technology, distancing and American corporate culture on Kumail is expressed in three scenes (a montage as an Uber driver), iPhone hang-ups and at a fast-food drive-through.  (Would Kumail want to bring up a family amidst such a nameless identity-stripping culture?)  All in all, Kumail is trapped, and while an escape seems to set him free, "The Big Sick", an elephant looming large in its very own room, does not.

Also with: Adeel Akhtar, Aidy Bryant, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Kurt Braunohler, Bo Burnham.

"The Big Sick" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language including some sexual references.  The film's running time is two hours.

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