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Intersectionally In Stitches: Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (2017) – Blu-ray review

November 27, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A film that is all the funnier for the realism of its wide-ranging look at gender, culture and religion.  For once, Hollywood gets to be ‘intersectional.’

1 Big Sick

The Big Sick
(Michael Showalter, 2017)

There’s a useful rule of thumb – best proved by Howard Stern in Private Parts – that people should never play themselves in a lead role.  The movie becomes a pseudo-movie, a big-screen echo of ‘constructed reality’ shows.  Yet, surely, it all comes down to the person.  If there’s a decent reason why nobody else could play the part, then it becomes far more than a vanity project and instead captures the emotional core of the situation being depicted.

So it is that stand-up comedian – and perennial supporting player – Kumail Nanjiani gets the lead role of his lifetime.  On the Blu-ray extras for The Big Sick, producer Judd Apatow explains that they’d been looking for the right story for Nanjiani for a while… and then it turns out that he’d already lived it.  So the tale of how the star/co-writer fell in love with Emily Gordon, only for the latter to fall so ill she was put into a medically-induced coma, becomes the putty for a rom-com of unusual depth and range.

That’s down to Nanjiani’s status, one which he’s cultivated in his stage persona, as a Pakistani comedian.  The comedy pivots delicately on the differences in his personal and professional lives, pushing the autobiographical slant that Apatow has long favoured in his ‘Funny People.’  But there’s an extra layer provided by Gordon as co-writer.  Her involvement gives a female perspective often denied in Apatow’s laddish comedy, just as Nanjiani’s cultural background informs the meet-cute in a way that, say, Lena Dunham in Girls, could never pull off.  Every character has a distinctive voice and worldview; just imagine how most films would demonise Nanjiani’s parents and see how delicately this portrays their conservative attitudes to marriage.

The result pinballs between subjects, finding space to dissect arranged marriages, cricket fielding positions and 9/11 (Nanjiani gets a brilliant joke at the expense of well-meaning liberals asking for his stance) even as it effortlessly captures the romance at the heart of any good rom-com.  And then, when Emily is stricken and bed-bound, the arrival of her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the in-laws you never knew you wanted) adds further complexity, as Nanjiani becomes the witness to a sort of ‘Ghosts of Christmas Future’ of how his own relationship might turn out.

There’s a certain bagginess, customary to Apatow-produced films, but it’s no bad thing here.  It doesn’t feel like an extended improv session, more that director Michael Showalter is gently coaxing the comedic – and, just as often, dramatic – potential from the story.  And, at the heart of it is a brace of star-making performances.  Gordon’s real-mZoe Kazan is more screwball zinger-slinger than Manic Pixie Dream Girl, while Nanjiani brings a smart blend of easy-going charm and gentle, non-judgemental sarcasm.  In one sight gag, he reveals he modelled himself after Hugh Grant in his teenage years, and you know what?  He could be in the Hugh Grant class provided Hollywood can create parts on the same level as his own life story.

The Big Sick is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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