Sunday, October 8, 2017


As buzz words like "inclusion" and "diversity" become increasingly prominent within the film industry, there is one group that still feels neglected. Namely, persons of Asian descent have scarcely seen themselves represented on screen outside of token roles. But there are signs of change, as Asian-Americans have been slowly coming to the forefront of film and TV. A perfect example is Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote and stars in Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick", an autobiographical romantic comedy that was a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival.

"The Big Sick" follows the personal crises of Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant who moved with his family to the United States a young age. Now an adult, Kumail is starting to realize the American dream. He is a budding comedian on the brink of success, a path that his more traditionalist parents firmly oppose. However, they are willing to indulge his "hobby" if he can grant them one wish - that he marry a Muslim woman. But as much as they try, Kumail is uninterested in his mother's matchmaking attempts. To make matters worse, he meets a white American woman named Emily, who he begins to fall in love with. The situation is a stressful one, as Kumail struggles to chose between his family and his heart. Meanwhile Emily is reluctant to fully commit to this new relationship, having already been through a divorce. And things get even more complicated when she contracts a mysterious disease that forces Kumail to finally decide what's important in his life.

Kumail's subsequent journey of self-discovery is filled with humor and tragedy, as he faces the messiness and unpredictability of life. Indeed, Kumail's courtship of Emily goes to unexpected places due to the baggage they both bring to the relationship. Free from gimmicky quirks, there is a rare authenticity to the characters, as much of the story is based on the experience of the writers - Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. In the case of Kumail, the script therefore touches on the unique perspective of first-generation Asian-Americans. Much like Ravi Patel showed in his documentary-romcom hybrid "Meet the Patels", the loving, close-knit family structure of Pakistani and Indian cultures is hard to reject, even in the face of "true love." And that delicate balance between suffocating control and comforting support is handled particularly in a series of dinner table scenes, which hilariously includes a revolving door of suitors who "just happened to show up", as Kumail's meddling, but endearing mother claims.

As many in his situation do, Kumail takes it in stride, with a sense of humor which stands out whether the character is on stage or in his daily interactions. Indeed, Nanjiani is far from your typical romantic lead, possessing a dorky personality that would make most casting directors look the other way. But director Michael Showalter smartly leans into Nanjiani's unorthodox screen presence, which pays off wonderfully when he eventually meets Emily's parents (perfectly played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). As he shares in their anxiety and sorrow and laughs through the tears, Nanjiani shows new depths to his acting ability.

And ultimately, it's surely Nanjiani's impressive performance and his sharp writing that have lead many to declare the film as "one of the best romantic comedies" in years, even spurring talk of an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar. Personally, there are some perhaps unavoidable cliches that prevent me from falling head over heels for it however. Though beautifully acted, Kazan's character mostly functions as a catalyst for the male lead's growth. Thankfully, she is no manic pixie dream girl and she isn't beholden to the man, which is a credit to the script (a deserving contender for Best Original Screenplay). "The Big Sick" may not be "perfect", but it's a heartfelt, satisfying film that at least brings a fresh face and voice to the big screen.

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