In the 1970s, every suburban couple shared the same dread: that they’d be invited over to another couple’s house to watch a slideshow of vacation photos. Invariably the guests would discover that their hosts couldn’t leave anything out. Everything was equally interesting to them, because it really happened to them. People say it was Watergate and Vietnam and Jimmy Carter’s lumpy sweaters that put everyone in a decade-long funk. No. It was the slideshows.
Which brings me to The Big Sick, a pleasing comedy with a solid emotional core that was one of the biggest hits at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Amazon bought the film for $12 million, a gigantic amount of money for a modest film and one of the biggest deals ever made in Park City. There is much to praise about The Big Sick, but it’s a nice little 85-minute movie stretched out to 119 minutes. Basing events closely on their own experience, writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon just couldn’t leave out any observation or witticism, regardless of whether the plot was left idling in the background, and so it takes an evening to get through less story than is contained in any single episode of Silicon Valley, the HBO comedy in which Nanjiani plays a diffident programmer.
Using his own name for the character, Nanjiani plays a Pakistani immigrant and secular Muslim who is an aspiring standup comic and Uber driver in Chicago when he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she heckles him during a set. (Actually, she just cries “Whoo-hoo,” but he calls that heckling.) They sleep together that night, but afterwards she says she doesn’t want to date anyone, without giving any reason. There isn’t one; this is just a dead end in the plot.
There are some sweet early scenes establishing the characters’ rapport, and we learn that Kumail’s traditionalist parents (who don’t know he watches videos when he is supposed to be praying) expect him to marry a Pakistani girl via arranged marriage, but Gordon and Nanjiani are so enamored of the standup-comedy world that it takes nearly 40 minutes for an actual conflict to be brought up: He’s the problem, not her. He says they can never be together because that would mean being kicked out of his family, but he also says he can’t abide the idea of an arranged marriage. Then Emily is felled by a life-threatening mysterious disease and placed in a medically induced coma. Kumail spends his days in the hospital with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who are initially cool to him because they’re aware that their daughter was heartbroken about him.
So The Big Sick melds two familiar genres: an immigrant family’s generational clash (also the subject of Aziz Ansari’s sprightly Netflix series Master of None) and the disease-of-the-week film. But instead of working through these storylines, the screenwriters essentially let them resolve themselves in the last few minutes. Until then, while one of the two leads of the film is offscreen and unconscious, the movie is mostly about some tension between Emily’s parents and Kumail’s struggles in standup comedy. Again and again we return to the comedy club, where he frets about impressing an important booker, swaps jokes with fellow comics, winces at weak acts, spats with hecklers, and belly-flops one night when Emily is facing surgery.
These scenes not only have the effect of stopping the main story in its tracks — please, can we get back to what is going on with Emily? — but also dilute the intended intensity of her situation. If, in Love Story, Ryan O’Neal had departed Ali McGraw’s bedside to do a whimsical what’s-the-deal-with-toast routine, it would have been hard to stay invested in their drama. Much of the comedy-club footage should have been excised from the movie, and one sequence (in which Kumail does a resolutely humorless one-man show about growing up in Pakistan) doesn’t even make sense given that we know how funny he is. Sundance audiences are unlikely to notice when a film is dragging because Sundance audiences simply can’t be bored; put them down in front of a nine-hour documentary on rice, and they’re in heaven. At the multiplex it’s a different story. People notice when there’s 35 minutes of filler in a two-hour film.
Outsiders are nowhere near as fascinated with our little world as we are.
Standup comedians thinking about putting their stories on film should acknowledge a hard truth that we journalists discovered long ago — outsiders are nowhere near as fascinated with our little world as we are. From Lenny to King of Comedy to Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling to Punchline to Funny People to Obvious Child to Top Five to this year’s The Comedian, no movie about standups has ever been a big hit. A few of these are very fine films, but there is something off-putting to audiences when career clowns take off the greasepaint.
I think it’s because we’re supposed to notice how tough comedy is, but what we actually notice is how self-centered comics are. That Kumail has to deal with, for instance, racist heckling isn’t nearly as compelling as the fact that his girlfriend’s life is on the line. And why would he be performing (badly) the night before she faces surgery? Whether he gets a slot at the Montreal Comedy Festival, as he keeps mentioning, really isn’t important when she’s breathing through a tube.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.