The Cambridge Union Society. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The NS debate: This house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it

Key event at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April will pit Shiv Malik, Laurie Penny and Simon Heffer against Kwasi Kwarteng, Mansoor Hamayun and Allison Pearson on the question of inter-generational equality.

As part of its partnership with the newly re-launched Cambridge Literary Festival (formerly known as Cambridge Wordfest), the New Statesman will host a flagship debate on Saturday 5 April at the Cambridge Union Society. Chaired by Rafael Behr, Political Editor of the New Statesman, six of the country’s sharpest political thinkers will debate the motion: “This house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it”.

Is this, contrary to received wisdom, an ideal time to be young? How have technology, travel and science improved young people’s lives for the better, and how much have they benefited from the struggles – sexual liberation, equality and post-war investment in health and education – of the baby boomer generation? Or is this, in fact, a far shallower world than the one the boomers inherited – one in which unemployment, constricted social mobility, austerity and environmental crisis are the end result of an overly selfish, financially irresponsible generation born after 1945?

As Rabbit Angstrom, the quintessential baby boomer in John Updike’s Rabbit series boasts: “I figure the oil’s going to run out about the same time I do, the year two thousand. Seems funny to say it, but I’m I lived when I did. These kids coming up, they’ll be living on table scraps. We had the meal.”

Proposing the motion will be the Guardian’s Shiv Malik, investigative reporter and author of Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. Joining him will be Laurie Penny, columnist, activist and New Statesman contributing editor, along with Simon Heffer, Daily Mail journalist, historian and author most recently of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. Arguing in opposition will be Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne in Surrey and author most recently of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World; Mansoor Hamayun, renewable technology entrepreneur and the chief executive of BBOXX, and Welsh novelist and columnist Allison Pearson.

Elsewhere at the festival, NS staff will be taking part in events with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, literary critic John Carey and novelists Jim Crace, A L Kennedy and Adam Foulds. Other highlights include appearances by Melvyn Bragg, Hanif Kureishi, Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, Pat Barker, Germaine Greer and Martin Rees.

Full programme information can be found on the Cambridge Literary Festival website. Tickets for the New Statesman debate, which will begin at 5.30pm on 5 April, can be purchased here.

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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