A romantic comedy that’s both fresh and familiar

Kumail meets Emily when she sort-of-heckles his standup comedy performance that is centered on his immigration experience. He asks if anyone else is from Pakistan, and Emily, a young blonde woman from North Carolina, woops in response. He joshingly admonishes her, she wittily snaps back, and he hits on her after the show. She makes fun and of his come-on line, claims she’s not interested in dating, and then they fall for each other.

Problems arise, because if they didn’t we wouldn’t have a movie. Some of the problems are unsurprising, like his conservative parents trying to arrange his marriage to a good Pakistani girl. But then it gets surprising. Shortly after Emily figures out why Kumail hasn’t introduced her to his family and dumps him, she gets deathly ill and placed into a coma. He ends up keeping vigil by her bed until her parents show up, and they are predisposed to hate the man who broke their daughter’s heart. Hilarity ensues? Yes, and no.

The Big Sick is based on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s actual relationship, with Nanjiani playing a version of himself and fantastic Zoe Kazan playing a version of Emily. The real couple wrote the beautifully realized screenplay, and Michael Showalter, who gave us last year’s under-watched and wonderful My Name is Doris, directs. The film mashes up a number of film tropes – star-crossed lovers, the immigrant experience in America, struggling comedians experiencing pathos, nervous guy meeting his girlfriend’s disapproving parents, and post 9/11 racism – and the result is something totally fresh while also being a little, and nicely, familiar.

The film’s authenticity comes partly from it being a true story, but also because Nanjiani, Gordon and Showalter create a naturalism in both drama and in comedy, with the jokes coming from people who are making them because it’s their job or because it’s the only way to deal with the awkwardness of life.

Nanjiani is the center of the film, and while his shtick as a performer is to be different versions of himself (see, for example, Dinesh in Silicon Valley), he does it very well. In his scenes with his conservative family – Anupam Kher as his father, Zenobia Shroff as his mother and Adeel Akhtar as his brother, all wonderful – he is deferential but still wry, struggling to be the comedian as well as their dutiful son. With his friends at the comedy club, he is more snarky, but he also tamps down his Pakistani-ness unless it’s being used as material. With Emily, he starts out trying to be what she wants him to be, but when she discovers his act, it’s devastating. His inability to integrate his various selves is his fatal flaw.

In trying to deal with Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, Kumail is forced to confront his mistakes, his fractured identity and his love for Emily. Hunter and Romano are given fantastic roles, much deeper and broader than such characters usually get, and their interactions with Nanjiani are at times nerve-wracking, even upsetting, and then they are hilarious. I can say I both laughed and cried at The Big Sick.

The Big Sick
Directed by Michael Showalter
Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

My World AIDS Day post: HIV, the Internet, and identity in San Diego.

This is my post for Bloggers Unite for World AIDS Day. It’s sponsored by AIDS.gov and BlogCatalog. A bunch of folks around the world are blogging about HIV and AIDS. My addition is a paper I gave last week in San Francisco about HIV, the Internet, and identity in San Diego.

If you were following my Twitters and/or my Facebook updates, you know that the weekend before Thanksgiving I was in San Francisco for the American Anthropology Association’s annual meetings. It is always wonderful to be in San Francisco, but I was so excited to be there, I tried to do too much, see too many people, have too much fun, and do what I was there to do: attend the darn meetings. And I ended up tired and cranky a lot of the time. Very tired. Very cranky. And then, on Thanksgiving morning, I woke up with a karma-rific cold. Still, I got one the best haicuts of my life from Joe, had an amazing dinner with Tom, had a couple beers with Mike, had an awesome dinner with Chia-Ning, went dancing here with Kevin, had several beers with a cheerful Jeff and several more with my fellow former New Yorker John. And I got to hang out with my sister-in-law Laura, who was also in town for a conference and with whom I shared a couple hotels rooms. (I stayed in three hotels in San Francisco that week. The Marriott is over-priced but damn nice. The Carlton is adorable and delightful. The Pickwick is a pit of despair.) Oh, yeah. And I did some anthropology-related things as well. I didn’t go to as many panels as I should have, but I networked up the wazoo, and ultimately, that will probably be more worthwhile.

And I gave a paper at a panel I organized with my friend Cage. The panel was called “Identities in the Clinic: conflicts, tensions, and critiques of self-concepts.” Here is the panel abstract:

Since Mauss’s essay on the person and Hallowell’s analysis of the self in its behavioral environment, anthropologists have attended to various ways in which certain kinds of social statuses and self-concepts organize social structure, perception, motivation, and action. In recent years, however, despite a new proliferation of articles on hybrid, fluid, or cyborg identities, and the play and tension of subaltern identities, much of this analysis remains at the level of the political and symbolic. The papers in this panel seek to ground and critique current ideas of identity and self, to elucidate the processes of identity as commitment to certain ways of being and certain moral ideals, as well as certain ways of perceiving, attributing, and interpreting signs of health, illness, sentiment, and morality, particularly as applied to issues of mental and bodily health, through explicitly psychological models. The papers herein examine the ways in which patients and health care providers negotiate conflicting identities: as agents of the state, as “systems based providers”, as documented/undocumented, as members of sexual or ethnic minorities, as simultaneously physician and scientist, or as a person with an illness negotiating multiple epistemological orientations in religious and cultural identities.

Could you be more excited? I didn’t think so.

For my World AIDS Days Bloggers Unite post, I’ve pasted the paper below the jump. It’s very much a working paper, and it should be treated as such. Continue…