In the Critics this week

Linda Grant on British Jewish writers, Naomi Alderman's exlusive short story and Jemima Khan intervi

In keeping with this week’s overarching theme for the magazine – Who speaks for British Jews? – our critic at large, Linda Grant, writes about the disparity of critical acclaim afforded American Jewish and British Jewish writers. “The US [Jewish experience] dazzles and obliterates, whereas the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice.”

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst speaks to Tim Parks about his new novel The Server, the story of a woman seeking silence and self-examination on a meditative retreat. “I’m intrigued by the idea of setting a novel in a place where most people are silent,” he says. “Also, I wanted to explore a bit more the whole questions of whether these people are not, in fact, involved in something that is causing an awful lot of pain for them.”

Elsewhere in Books: Sarah Churchwell reviews The Astaires: Fred and Adele; Jane Shilling reviews Pico Iyer’s “counterbiography” The Man within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me; and Naomi Alderman contributes an exclusive piece of short fiction, All the sorrow that came after, which flits between the doomed 13th century romance of a Christian man and a Jewish woman, and contemporary recollection of the author’s own study of Jewish history.

Elsewhere, Jemima Khan interview Eva Schloss, holocaust survivor, author, and stepsister of Anne Frank.  “I didn’t have any inkling that she might write a diary with such meaning,” says Schloss of the 13-year-old Frank. “She was a child, interested in clothes and fashion, in hairstyles, in boyfriends.” Schloss is the author of two books, Eva’s Story and The Promise. Hers is a life of trauma and loss of faith, later of strength and sharing her story. Of her Auschwitz tattoo she says, “I’m glad to have it because schoolchildren always want to see it. I say to them it’s very important for you to remember because when we are not around in 20 or 30 years, a new generation of youngsters will have to keep the story alive and say, yes I’ve seen somebody, I’ve seen their tattoo.”

Also in the Critics: Rachel Lichtenstein recalls a childhood spend in the jewellery world of Hatton Garden, the subject of her new book Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden; Ryan Gilbey reviews Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom; Rachel Cooke finds Sky’s new drama Hit and Miss a bit of a miss; and Will Self discusses his (half) Jewish identity in “Madness of Crowds”.

A photograph of diarist Anne Frank, whose stepsister Eva Schloss survived Auschwitz and later wrote two memoirs.
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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