Dilettante's Diary

Oct 5/17

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Big Sick (Movie); Blueprints for St. Louis (Short Fiction)

The Big Sick (Movie) written by Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani ; directed by Michael Showalter; starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Aktar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Myra Lucretia Taylor

It often happens: You hear people raving about a popular new movie but when you see it, you’re disappointed. In this case, though, it worked in the opposite way. People had been telling me that they found the first half hour tedious, but they said they were totally hooked when the major plot crisis kicked in. I, however, loved it right from the start. The onset of the huge problem in the narrative didn’t make such a big difference to me. That could be because I knew what was coming.

You probably do too, if you’ve read anything about this movie. But Dilettante’s Diary is not the place where we give away any plot information unnecessarily. So let’s just say that this movie is about a thirty-something Pakistani (Kumail Nanjiani) living in Chicago; he drives for Uber to make a living but his passion is stand-up comedy. After his gig at a club one night, he meets up with a feisty, humourous young American woman (Zoe Kazan). Their relationship proceeds sporadically with both of them insisting that this can’t be happening. Meanwhile, his parents are forcing nice Pakistani women on him in the expectation that this will lead to the appropriate marriage, i.e. one arranged by the parents.

It would be one of the biggest understatements in the history of arts criticism to say that this theme – young love threatened by family allegiances – is common. A doomed pair from Verona, anyone? Just one other example: Late Marriage, an Israeli film of a few years ago, features a bachelor who’s deeply involved with a divorced mother but his parents keep trying to foist a more "proper" wife on him. So it’s not the idea itself that makes The Big Sick work so well. I think much of the credit for the movie’s success goes to Mr. Nanjiani. Not only is he the star and co-writer, along with Emily Gordon, his wife, but this is their own true story. My understanding (from a New Yorker article) is that he happened to be telling Judd Apatow about his experience and the producer responded: "That sounds like a movie." Hence, The Big Stick.

Mr. Nanjiani carries the movie largely. He’s lucky in coming to the big screen at this point in our culture, in that he has the opportunity to give us a leading man not quite like any other that we’ve had before. He has the charm, good looks and self-deprecating humour of many contemporary male stars but there’s also that edgy quality that comes from his being from outside mainstream Western culture. How many comedians can joke about being taken for a terrorist? Watching him, we feel that we’re getting to know somebody different and our conscience tells us that, given the state of world affairs, this is probably a kind of person we should try to know better.

Fortunately, we like what we see. He’s can dish out his wicked wit so gently that it goes down like syrup. For instance, when somebody tells a joke that bombs, then tries to explain it, Mr. Nanjiani responds quite nicely: "I like to have jokes explained to me" [not an exact quote]. You almost think he could be telling the truth. Or, at least, you’re satisfied that the person he’s talking to probably hasn’t noticed the barb hidden in the remark. Now that Mr. Nanjiani has scored a huge success with this movie, let’s hope he doesn’t get over-used as happens to so many young stars whose unique personalities often grow stale through over-exposure.

Another thing that makes the movie work so well is that Zoe Kazan isn’t a drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood type. She’s a moderately attractive, pleasant young woman who could be your niece or the girl next door. That helps to make the somewhat unconventional relationship feel real. She isn’t the kind of princess who would be hold out for a knight in shining armour; she looks like she’d be willing to take a bit of a risk on this outsider.

Every other part in the movie is brilliantly cast and beautifully acted. Mr. Nanjiani’s pals in the comedy club (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler) make us feel exactly what it’s like to be those people in that place at that time in their lives. The parents on the two sides of the love relationship add a lot to the movie’s dynamic. His parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) have the smaller roles but they’re absolutely convincing as the ambitious mom and dad who try to go along with their son’s quirky affinity for Americanisms – if only he’ll do the right thing marriage-wise. Her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are worth a movie on their own. Their relationship, already somewhat frayed, comes under greater stress as a result of the movie’s big plot point. The dad is an ordinary sort of guy, a math teacher, who tries to do the decent thing when caught in difficult circumstances but doesn’t have the savoir faire to carry it off with much finesse. (He can’t tell a joke, either.) Holly Hunter makes a searing impression as a woman who’s seething with so much rage that she can barely spit out the required niceties. (Surely a nomination for best actress in a supporting role here.)

One way of signalling the movie’s appeal would be to say that it triumphs gloriously over that abysmal title. (You’d think a producer would have nixed that.) Scene after scene is original and captivating. One very brief one involves only one line: "Are you her husband?" As that question is repeated several times, it has the effect of going much deeper than some of the most elaborate speechifying in any movie. If you think about this movie too much, though, you might begin to notice that the complications keep piling up at an almost incredible rate. And a few of the situations strike a slightly implausible note. For instance, the Holly Hunter character’s sudden change of attitude towards Mr. Nanjiani. And, his behaviour at a comedy club where he drops a huge bomb one night, which doesn’t seem like the kind of thing this character would do.

But the movie doesn’t stop long enough to let you make those kinds of judgements. It’s not meant to get you thinking. It doesn’t propose anything that hasn’t already come to your mind. It takes you into Rom-Com territory that’s, on the whole, pretty familiar. But it does so with tremendous class and charm. Take that biryani dish delivered in a tupperware container at a crucial moment towards the movie’s conclusion. In a stroke of genius, it sums up the complicated mixture of love and anger running through so much of life.


Blueprints for St. Louis (Short Fiction) by Ben Marcus, The New Yorker, Oct 2/17

We start with a woman named Ida thinking about her cooling relationship with Roy, her husband. There’s an appalling diffidence to her attitude. Her thoughts are sprinkled with careless, dismissive "whatever’s." This makes for discomfiting but gripping reading. The piece goes on to talk mostly about a monument that Roy and Ida have been designing as a memorial following a terrorist attack (fictional, I presume) in St. Louis. That leads to speculation on the difficulty, the implausibility – even the absurdity – of trying to convey a suitable commemoration of such a horror. The thoughts here are intriguing in a philosophical, somewhat abstract way, but the writing became less interesting for me because we’d lost focus on Ida and Roy’s relationship.

However, Ida’s thoughts at end of the story hit me with a force of truth that you don’t often get in fiction: "Our desire for sense and order, our sentimental belief that we are not hurtling through space in tiny pieces, has served as a kind of biological propaganda for our visual apparatus, leading us to the sentimentalized, so-called whole world on view in front of us." She wonders if someone will come along who sees the world of speeding pieces just as it is. "Wasn’t that bound to happen, and what on earth, she thought, as she watched everyone walking past her into the mirage, was taking so long?"

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com