Sunday, July 2, 2017

REVIEW: Romantic comedy with Asian American lead crosses over

WHEN WAS the last time you saw a motion picture with an Asian/American male as a romantic lead? 

You have to go back to 2007's Never Forever when Jung-woo Ha played opposite the excellent Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel) in an interracial romance. But that little-seen movie, though critically acclaimed, never made it out of the art house circuit and didn't receive the attention it deserved, so naturally, didn't have the big box-office appeal and massive marketing that could have turned it into a cultural milestone.

Overcoming the pop-cultural hurdles of the Asian/American male stereotype, The Big Sick has sneaked up on us amidst the summer blockbusters currently headlining movie marquees.  The unheralded movie without a single CGI or special effect gives us a portrayal of the AA male that is neither a computer geek or a skilled martial artist. He's just a guy in love. A Pakistani/American guy in  love with a white girl. Please withhold your mock gasps. 

RELATED: Where does the Asian American male stereotype come from?
The interracial/intercultural aspect that streams throughout the film is what differentiates The Big Sick from the plethora of guy-meets-girl plot lines starring the ingenue-of-the-day and the look-alike hunk-of-the-day.

At its heart, The Big Sick is a comedy. There is nothing like laughter and elbows-to-the-ribs to break down the barriers that separate us.

The story is based on the real-life courtship of the star of the movie, Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, beautifully played by Zoe Kazan in the movie. They also wrote the script. It is clever and never stoops to  stereotypes but deftly handles the racial/cultural differences and the hurdles they present with grace, not in a demeaning or pedantic way.

The relationship between Nanjiani's character and his immigrant parents is a familiar one for most Asian Americans. Their insistence that he marry a Pakistani woman, their attempts to match him up in a pre-arranged marriage and their desire for him to become a lawyer instead of pursuing a career as a standup comedian are scenes we've played out in our own live as Asian/Americans trying to bridge two cultures. 

Meet the real-life couple the movie is based on.

The movie starts out easily enough on familiar ground as a boy-meets-girl movie but then delves into the relationship Nanjiani develops with his girlfriend's parents. As Gordon's parents  Holly Hunter and Ray Romano almost steal the show with their strong and nuanced performances. (There's already talk about Oscar nominations.) It is this detour in the storyline that allows supporting actors Hunter and Romano to give depth to their own relationship and marriage and love in general.

The Big Sick could almost function as a prequel to Aziz Ansari's Master of None where his character moves to New York to pursue his acting career. It has that same feel of a changing America using humor to take down some of our biases and stereotypes -- a nice guy, a nice Pakistani guy, trying to succeed in a nontraditional career and at the same time coping with the almost daily mini-cultural clashes that shape their lives.

To their credit, Nanjiani and his wife, Emily, wrote a script where the ending isn't all neatly wrapped up and they live happily-ever after. The audience is left hanging, especially in Nanjiani's relationship with his own parents. 

The movie is a refreshing break from all the big budget superhero summer blockbusters Hollywood seems to prefer. A humorous and joyful story about family, love and relationships, specifically inter-racial and inter-cultural relationships, is something that more and more Americans find themselves encountering in real life. How these personal culture clashes are resolved a million times over, may provide the answer for resolving many of the divisions that we, as a country, face today. The Big Sick is one answer.