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'The Big Sick' Is A Wonderful Movie And An Imperfect Milestone


This is FRESH AIR. Best known for his work on the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," the Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani steps into his first leading role in a feature film in "The Big Sick." It's a semi-autobiographical love story that he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. The film was directed by Michael Showalter and premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where critic Justin Chang first saw it.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Big Sick" sounds on paper like a fairly conventional romantic dramedy. It begins with a meet cute, proceeds confidently through flirtation, sex and full-fledged romance, then skids to a halt with a nasty breakup followed by a dire medical emergency that seems fated to end in reconciliation or grief. Judd Apatow is one of the producers, and you can sense his influence in the movie's emotional density as well as its precision-tooled stream of laughs and tears. But there's just one thing. The lovers in the story are a Pakistani-American man and a white woman, and that complication is enough to make a conventional narrative seem positively radical. It's a case of art imitating life.

"The Big Sick" was written by the actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, the writer-producer Emily V. Gordon. Together they have spun a key chapter of their lives into a wonderfully funny and affecting romance as well as a thorny consideration of interracial dating and the challenges of being a Muslim immigrant in present-day America. While Emily is played with winning spirit by Zoe Kazan, Nanjiani, who is best known for his performance on HBO's "Silicon Valley," does a terrific job of playing a younger version of himself, a trickier feat than it sounds.

In the movie, Kumail, who was born in Pakistan and moved to Chicago with his family as a teenager, makes a living as an Uber driver but aspires to a career in stand-up comedy. He's increasingly torn between his desire to assimilate into American culture and his sense of obligation to his traditionalist parents, played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff. They'd like him to ditch the comedy, become a lawyer and marry one of the many nice Pakistani-American girls they keep inviting over to dinner.

What his parents don't know is that Kumail has already become smitten with Emily after meeting her at one of his comedy shows. She lets out a friendly woo-hoo during his set. He ribs her for heckling him. Before long, they're inseparable. And while Emily may not be a professional comedian, to the movie's good fortune, she doesn't let Kumail monopolize the jokes. It's clear enough from their first date, amid some delightful postcoital banter, that she's on the same goofy anything-for-a-punchline wavelength that he is.


ZOE KAZAN: (As Emily) I think I'm going to go home.

KUMAIL NANJIANI: (As Kumail) Wait. Wait. We haven't even had sex again yet.

KAZAN: (As Emily) Yeah, I'm just not that kind of girl. I only have sex once on the first date.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) What is happening? What are you doing?

KAZAN: (As Emily) I'm changing under this blanket.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) I've seen everything. Do you remember we were just having sex?

KAZAN: (As Emily) Yeah, but you were, like, in the throes of passion then. Listen. I had a really nice time. Thank you very much. I'm just going to, like, call an Uber, go home, and I hope...


KAZAN: (As Emily) Just...


NANJIANI: (As Kumail) Your driver will be ready as soon as he puts on his pants.

CHANG: But their compatibility is sorely tested when Emily learns five months into the relationship that Kumail still hasn't told his parents about her. She begins to realize just how beholden he is to his family's culture with its strict Muslim beliefs and arranged marriages and angrily breaks things off. A different movie might have engineered an awkward but ultimately cathartic meeting between Emily and Kumail's parents. But real life had precisely the opposite outcome in store.

When Emily suddenly develops a serious infection and is placed in a medically induced coma, Kumail finds himself spending several days in the hospital waiting room with her out-of-town parents, Beth and Terry. They're played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, and their marvelously full-bodied performances are the movie's secret weapon. Romano is wonderful here as a goofy sad sack with a lot of lame jokes and a variation on the slow drawl he perfected on "Everybody Loves Raymond." And there are almost no words to do Hunter justice. Beth is hard on Kumail at first for messing things up with her daughter. But in time, her spitfire veneer cracks open, revealing a heart of enormous tenderness and grace. When Hunter smiles, you could almost warm your hands over the screen.

Smoothly directed by Michael Showalter, "The Big Sick" is both a crowd-pleaser and an eye-opener, and it's quietly groundbreaking in the way it puts Kumail's perspective front and center - his longings, his insecurities and his profound sense of being caught between two worlds. Still, at times, you have to wonder if these comic insights, sharp as they are, have been specifically tailored to flatter a Western audience.

Kher and Shroff are excellent as Kumail's parents, but I wanted more from their characters than comic uptightness and dramatic outrage. Ironically, their troubles communicating with their son are precisely the reason they don't register as fully dimensional figures the way Beth and Terry do - all of which is to say that "The Big Sick" is both a wonderful movie and an imperfect milestone. With any luck, we'll look back on it someday, and it won't feel like a milestone at all.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about recent Russian cyberattacks in Ukraine on the power grid, government agencies, banks and how those attacks may be tests for attacks on the U.S. Our guest will be Andy Greenberg, who wrote the cover story about this for Wired magazine. We'll also discuss what we already know about Russian cyberattacks on the U.S., and he'll tell us about driving a hacked car. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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