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In the picture

The Big Sick is the funniest date movie of 2017; Rough Night never finds its comedic mojo

In the picture

The Big Sick**** 

*ing: Kumail Nanjiani, Anupem Kher, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano

Directed by Michael Showalter

A struggling Chicago stand-up comic and Uber driver named Kumail, played by the terrifically talented Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh on Silicon Valley), is poleaxed by the news that his girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) has fallen unexpectedly and inexplicably ill. While doctors look for answers, she lies in a medically induced coma. Hard to believe? Nope. Nanjiani and his wife/co-screenwriter Emily V. Gordon carved this romantic comedy out of her personal hospital experience and their own culture-clash relationship. Their hilarious and heartfelt script has a rare authenticity that pulls you in and keeps you glued to the screen.

Boy meets girl when she flirtatiously heckles him during his club act. Their mutual attraction grows into something deeper, but Kumail keeps stalling about introducing this white girl, who’s majoring in psychology, to his strict Muslim family. Anytime the comic comes home for dinner, his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff) trot out another suitable Pakistani woman in the hope that their son will participate in his own arranged marriage. It’s a credit to the film that the old-world ties to his family and their culture still tug at this assimilated young man; no wonder Emily resents being kept at arm’s length from the people that matter most to the man she loves. But Kumail keeps his feelings in check, except in deadpan comedy routines in which he lists the preferred order of career choices for a young Pakistani man: “doctor, engineer, lawyer, ISIS, comedian.”

The couple hit a stalemate and she breaks up with him in a scene that resonates with raw humor and injured feelings. Then Emily is hospitalized, and Kumail comes face to face with her fiercely devoted parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (the sublime Holly Hunter), a North Carolina couple having their own marital issues. Each of them resents him for hurting their daughter; each of them gradually begins to see this stranger as vulnerably human. Nothing simple here. Pain has a way of resisting comfy clichés.

Romano and Hunter inhabit their roles beautifully, their blunt honestly helping this culturally conflicted commitment-aphobe to open his heart. And Nanjiani is a revelation, investing his role with grit, grace and touching gravity. Anoyone who’s watched Silicon Valley or seen him in supporting roles knew the comedian was funny, but the depth of emotion he unveils here shows his career as an actor has only just begun.

Kudos to director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) for keeping The Big Sick’s shifting tones in perfect balance. And a tip of the hat as well to co-producer Judd Apatow for giving the film just the right comedic context as Kumail interacts – sometimes generously, sometimes selfishly – with stand-up pals played by Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler and SNL’s Aidy Bryant. Still, it’s Nanjiani and Gordon who raise the bar on romcoms by seeing relationships (and the families wrapped up in them) as the bruising business they are. The Big Sick is the frankest and funniest date movie around, but be warned: You’ll laugh till it hurts.

 

 

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Rough Night **

*ing: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoë Kravitz

Directed by Lucia Aniello

Four women go wild at a Miami bachelorette party for their BFF Jess (Scarlett Johansson), an uptight candidate for state senator who has to work through some control issues. Good premise. It’s club time for the ladies – Frankie (Ilana Glazer), a lesbian activist, and her former lover, real-estate diva Blair (Zoë Kravitz); Pippa (SNL MVP Kate McKinnon), Jess’s Aussie bud from her year abroad; and schoolteacher Alice (Jillian Bell), the college party animal who never reformed and still feels no shame over her rep as a “foot-job girl.” Great cast. The director and co-screenwriter is Lucia Aniello, part of the femcentric fun ride of Comedy Central’s Broad City.

So far, so delectable. And then what? After doing shots, snorting blow and finding themselves, as Alice says, “swimming in d****,” the fivesome hangs out at a plush beach house. You assume we’d start finding things out about who they are, what binds or unbinds them, etc.. Nah.

The plot pivots around the death of a male stripper. It’s not a murder – one of the larger ladies just jumped the dude with too much enthusiasm. (Dock a large number of points lost here for fat shaming.) There is also blood, a frisson to temper the overheated mayhem, and then lots of strained hilarity about hiding the body. At which point, Rough Night suffers a major identity crisis. Is it Bridesmaids mixed with the classic corpse comedy Weekend at Bernie’s? Or, if your taste runs to indies, is it Very Bad Things spiced with Bachelorette?

As it turns out, the movie never figures out what it is, descending at its worst to an estrogen-fueled spin on a testosterone-heavy Hangover sequel. With this team of talent, we have the right to expect more than comic desperation and contrivances such as the swingers next door, played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, whose house has surveillance cameras. What to do? The obvious, it seems. [Sigh.]

The laughs are scattershot, though I did like the sight gag about The Human Centipede. But the pleasure here is all in the actresses. Glazer, a co-creator of Broad City, can really nail a zinger, and her scenes with Kravitz have a welcome edge. And Johansson, in the straight role – cowriter Paul W. Downs plays Jess’s no-fun fiancé – shows a scrappy willingness to let loose in an R-rated mainstream rabble-rouser. Bell is the live-wire in this bunch; I’d give her best in show if it wasn’t for McKinnon stealing every scene she’s in. The women in Rough Night are terrific company. They never wear out their welcome. You can’t say the same for the movie.

 

Rating system:  *Not on your life     ** Hardly worth the bother     ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only     *** Good enough for a look see     *** ½ Recommended viewing     **** Don’t miss it     **** ½ Almost perfect     ***** Perfection

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