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The Big Sick

Released 2017. Director: Michael Showalter

BASED ON A SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ACCOUNT of how actor/writer/producer Kumail Nanjiani met his wife Emily, this romantic dramedy has the familiarity of a Hollywood direction with an interesting update. This inter-racial coupling is not the standard black and white but brown and white and brown is having problems accepting the lighter shade.

Intolerance is no laughing matter and The Big Sick is cautious not to milk insensitive elements for crude entertainment purposes. The cultural clash is the underlying basis in terms of a romantic obstacle. To make matters more complicated, Emily gets into a coma, leaving Kumail to fend for himself against four parents with strong feelings.

The significance of Kumail’s role is of course the casting of an actor who is neither white nor black, not even Hispanic, in the romantic male lead in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Is America ready to break a mould? Strictly speaking, Kumail Nanjiani playing himself means it's not acting. His persona is a docile, easy-going, polite boyfriend who is also a little boring. It’s a shame he did not write himself a fuller development. Amiable to a fault, his character has the emotional register of a flatliner. Zoe Kazan as Emily is bright and perky in a somewhat manufactured way. Holly Hunter is a stand-out as Emily’s protective mother with strong opinions and not afraid to verbalise them.

Beneath the guise of a light comedy drama, there are a couple of serious thoughts running through. Both sets of parents face the prospect of losing a child. One through disease, the other verges on disowning. The more obvious theme is tradition versus self-determination. Kumail’s family migrated to America but continues to practise arranged marriage. Kumail, being a dutiful son, breaks up with Emily to satisfy his parents, even though he disagrees and asks a pertinent question many migrant families might ask themselves: why take the trouble to become a resident of another country but abide by antiquated ways and refuse to adapt?

The movie’s strength is not found in its comedy, though the movie has been marketed as one. The writing has some distance to go to match the wit and sparkle of works by masters of the genre such as the late Nora Ephron and Elaine May. But The Big Sick does have a big heart and deals with real issues not usually tackled so outright; and crucially, does not rely on crude or juvenile humour that characterise so many Hollywood comedies. And that's a big thumbs up.

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