Two days in, sandwiched between a coolly received presidential inauguration and Saturday’s anti-Trump march down Main Street here in Park City, “The Big Sick” is the hit so far of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Most of the movie, the best of it, works like crazy with an audience. With luck producer Judd Apatow and company will elect to do the tough-love thing and find the right 10 minutes to cut out of its final third. Even so: On its own modest scale the movie could do for its cowriter and star Kumail Nanjiani, now on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and a five-year alum of Chicago’s comedy scene, what “Trainwreck” (the recent, Apatow-steered comic showcase) did for Amy Schumer.
Directed by Michael Showalter, “The Big Sick” works as a fictionalized account of how Nanjiani and his cowriter and wife, Emily V. Gordon, met in Chicago and how a coma played a key role in brokering their happiness. Nanjiani portrays a droll Uber-driver/aspiring comedian version of his younger self. Zoe Kazan, a deft and sharp-witted scene partner, plays Emily, a University of Chicago graduate student; Holly Hunter and Ray Romano enjoy juicy supporting roles as Emily’s parents, perplexed by the man in their daughter’s life, pulled into each other’s orbits by an alarming medical emergency.
Like Mike Birbiglia’s recent film “Don’t Think Twice,” "The Big Sick" comes from an authentic perspective of comic strivers trying to hit their stride.
“I loved that movie,” a happily dazed Nanjiani told me Friday night at the post-screening party held at the Chase Sapphire lounge on Main. “Don’t Think Twice,” he said, made him cry. “I mean, since Trump got elected, every film I see makes me cry. But that one I saw before the election, so the fact that it made me cry really means something.”
The party was loud so Nanjiani and I slipped downstairs, past the coat check, and in the basement we found a couple of chairs a few yards from a snoring, couch-bound film festival volunteer. The snow blew in circles outside; inside, all was goodwill, meatball appetizers and talk of the "buyer frenzy" (so said one industry reporter) as "The Big Sick” locks in a distributor en route to its likely theatrical release later this year.
When a movie clicks at Sundance, it’s like mass hypnosis; you temporarily forget how that popularity doesn’t automatically translate to mainstream success months later, outside the festival bubble.
Too early to say, or care, Nanjiani said.
“I can’t fully articulate it. We’ve been working on this movie a long time. I suppose it’s like being a chef; you think what you made might be good, and you may like it yourself, but that first screening is like the cold opening of a really big restaurant. All these people who really know movies are there …. we made the movie we wanted to make. And we can only hope other people can relate to it in some way.”
In Chicago a decade and more ago, the Pakistani-born Nanjiani made his way, while satisfying his work visa requirements with a daytime office job at the U. of C., up and around the local standup scene. His pals and cohorts included T.J. Miller, Hannibal Buress and Kyle Kinane.
“The most important thing I learned,” he said of those Chicago years, “was finding your own voice. Telling a joke only you can tell. It doesn’t matter how you’re doing with the audience; it doesn’t matter if you’re killing or not. We didn’t care what the audience thought, to be honest. We cared what the comedians thought. We kept each other honest, and kept the emphasis on being personal.
That’s what I learned in Chicago.”
The 2017 Sundance Film Festival continues through Jan. 29.