THE BIG SICK (2017, Michael Showalter)
Really puts into perspective just how off-key so many failed attempts at this genre are. First of all, there hasn’t been a straight-up romantic comedy this good since probably NOTTING HILL (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the final scenes of both films are extremely similar), and in addition, it handles the intricacies of immigrant families (and interracial relationships) with nuance, complex detail, and earnest understanding.
Take for example the slapstick version of Indian parents in Netflix’s MASTER OF NONE from Aziz Ansari. No doubt his version stems from deep truths, but he casts his own parents (who are not actors, and are terrible at acting) and writes his scenarios with simplified arcs. What Nanjiani has done here (with deeply felt direction from Showalter) is present a Pakistani family with similar reservations but characters that extend beyond the screen; they’re stars of their own movies, not supporting roles in Kumail’s.
Then there’s the treatment of stand-up comedy — usually the domain of sad-clown clichés (where creators love to dig into the drama of “trying to make it,” and showing the dark side of this cutthroat business), here it’s just a solid creative outlet full of a variety of people, skilled and unskilled, that lack the psychoses of characters in everything from PUNCHLINE to I’M DYING UP HERE. Nanjiani plays a version of himself in the same way Louis CK or Jerry Seinfeld have done, but he’s done an excellent job of proving wrong his parents’ (and everyone else’s, perhaps) stereotypes about the business. [That said, I could have done without the set-that-goes-wrong-because-the-comic-gets-real sequence, which has been overdone to death ever since Tig Notaro nailed it in real life].
As for the supporting roles, the cast is overflowing with talent. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are both incredible: believable and uproarious in all the right ways. Small turns from people like Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant also find the right tone. Showalter, while not exactly Edgar Wright with the camera, nonetheless knows comedy as well as any filmmaker in America, and this thing is bursting with huge laughs. And they’re earned laughs, and they come from a real place that’s deeply human and heartfelt. That makes the gear-shift to sad, tension-filled drama a graceful one — it’s never too maudlin or cheaply sentimental. These are tough things to get right, and even if you can’t put your finger on one thing this film does that’s extraordinary, just compare it to everything else and you’ll realize just how special it is.