In the Critics this week

Norman Lamont on Iran, Michael Rosen on children and literature, Leo Robson on John Lanchester and J

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, the lead book review is by former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont. Reviewing Trita Parsi's A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, Lamont argues that western policy on Iran has failed. "[It] has become institutionalised," he writes. "As one US state department official put it: 'Thirty years of doing something in a certain way is pretty powerful.'" Yet the case for doing things differently, Lamont thinks, is unarguable. "Washington's containment policy is accompanied by other measures such as cyber warfare, sabotage and, allegedly, the murder of Iranian scientists. Iran seems to be retaliating by targeting Israeli diplomats, The spiral continues."

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to American writer Nathan Englander about his new collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Englander says he "appreciate[s] and love[s]" the short story form. "There was so much pressure when I was writing [my] novel. I've also freed myself from this idea of definition ... I tell stories, that's it."

Also in Books, the NS's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson breaks with the burgeoning critical consensus on John Lanchester's novel Capital. "Lanchester's new novel," he writes, "has the daunting dimensions, totalising ambition and democratic cast list of a 19th-century novel in modern-day dress." However, "as a portrait of metropolitan decadence, [Capital] is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms."

Also under review: David Herman reviews Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Wood; Jane Shilling reviews the watercooler book du jour, Rachel Cusk's memoir Aftermath ("Readers who admire the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny will find precision, beauty and a complicated truth in Cusk's narrative. The censorious will enjoy it, too, for different reasons"); Maurice Walsh reviews Douglas Murray's Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry; and Robert Hanks reviews New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin.

Our Critic at large this week is the children's author and poet Michael Rosen. Rosen complains that children's writers are rarely asked for their opinion on how to get children reading - more's the pity. "The makers of children's books are people who spend their lives trying to figure out ways to make [their] wisdom interesting ... What infuriates me .... is that the past 30 years have seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of this wisdom."

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Michael directed by Markus Schleinzer; Will Self's "Real Meals"; Kate Mossman on Madonna; Antonia Quirke on Radio 4's Living World; Rachel Cooke on Jeremy Paxman's series Empire; Andrew Billen on In Basildon at the Royal Court; Hunter Davies's "The Fan"; and "2004", a poem by Owen Sheers."

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue