Sundance: 'The Big Sick' offers an early cure for the festival blues

The Sundance Film Festival’s early days may have been overshadowed by the one-two punch of Friday’s presidential inauguration and Saturday’s women’s march, but this 33rd annual edition has slowly but surely roused itself to life. The festival laid claim to its first major crowd-pleaser on Friday with the world premiere of director Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” an effortlessly funny and charming romance that subtly deepens into a moving portrait of cross-cultural, cross-generational bonds.

Acquired by Amazon Studios for $12 million after a heated bidding war, “The Big Sick” is drawn from the life of “Silicon Valley” actor Kumail Nanjiani, who stars as a younger (but present-day) version of himself. A Pakistani American man struggling to succeed as a stand-up comic in Chicago, Kumail has a very public meet-cute with a friendly heckler named Emily (Zoe Kazan). And so begins a relationship marked by startling emotional highs and lows, but mostly by a generous stream of laughter — and while Kumail may be a professional in that department, he wisely doesn’t monopolize the jokes, as Emily’s spiky sense of humor both matches and complements his own. (Nanjiani co-wrote the script with Emily V. Gordon, his wife.)

The involvement of producer Judd Apatow can be seen in the roundedness of the characterizations and the pleasing messiness of the movie’s emotional texture. But Nanjiani’s immigrant identity opens up an entirely new dimension of the Apatovian universe for him to colonize. In the movie, Kumail is too scared to break the news about his white girlfriend to his strict Muslim parents, who only want him to settle down with a nice Pakistani American girl.

Watching “The Big Sick” brought back memories of two other recent projects addressing the generation gap, as it relates to Indian American families. Like Aziz Ansari’s character in the Netflix series “Master of None,” Kumail is an aspiring entertainer trying to deal with his tradition-minded parents. And like the documentary “Meet the Patels,” “The Big Sick” holds up the culture of arranged marriages for detailed comic scrutiny.

I’d have happily watched a movie focused entirely on the spectacle of Emily meeting Kumail’s parents (nicely played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher). But the movie, like the lives that inspired it, has something trickier up its sleeve. Suffice to say that extreme circumstances force Kumail to spend a lot of time with Emily’s parents rather than vice versa — an extended encounter with so many built-in layers of awkward humor and piercing revelation, you might almost miss the fact that Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are doing their sharpest, most emotionally vivid work in years.

Still, it’s Nanjiani’s voice — hilarious, sardonic and completely sincere by turns — that we hear most clearly. The Kumail we see on-screen may not be the most gifted or polished comedian, but he has the comedian’s instincts down cold — the ability to weave quick jabs and punchlines into the ebb-and-flow rhythms of everyday conversation.

The film’s critique of the Hollywood establishment works in a similarly stealthy way. To judge by how few interracial romances we see on American screens, you’d think they were harder to pull off in the movies than they are in real life. Showalter’s movie is too deft and savvy to present itself as the solution to anything, but “The Big Sick” is still a big step in the right direction.

*****

“Before I Fall,” Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s bestselling young-adult novel, is exactly the kind of movie you don’t go to Sundance to see. It has a distributor (Open Road Films), a release date on the horizon (March 3), a built-in audience and a trailer that’s already in heavy multiplex rotation. It’s glossy and pretty and slathered in voiceover, and its potential to be hailed as a “discovery” is utterly nil. I really didn’t need to see “Before I Fall” — and I’m still trying to figure exactly why I’m glad I did.

The premise is basically “Mean Girls” meets “Groundhog Day.” Sam (Zoey Deutch, “Everybody Wants Some!!”), an attractive, popular high schooler, finds herself living the same fateful day over and over again — an inexplicable phenomenon of which none of her friends or family members seem aware. It’s no spoiler to reveal that if Sam wants to break the cycle for good, some much-needed self-examination and behavior improvement will be in order.

When exactly did Sam and her three best friends — chiefly Lyndsay (Halston Sage), the menacing Regina George of the group — become such snarky emotional terrorists? Why do they heap so much nasty abuse on Juliet (Elena Kampouris), the school’s resident outcast? As Sam tries one failed course of action after another, “Before I Fall” develops a none-too-subtle anti-bullying message; I have no idea what the title means, but it as well be called it “It Gets Better: The Movie.”

But if Maria Maggenti’s script feels on-the-nose at times, it also has the virtue of wearing its heart on its sleeve. Russo-Young, who was previously at Sundance with 2012’s “Nobody Walks,” treats her story’s call for empathy with the utmost seriousness.

And if the director’s elegant play with time isn’t as deft as what Harold Ramis achieved in “Groundhog Day,” or what Doug Liman pulled off in the sinfully underrated Tom Cruise thriller “Edge of Tomorrow,” it nevertheless accomplishes its strange, paradoxical goal. The tedious repetition of a single day becomes a stirring reminder of just how little time we really have to spend with each other. If that’s not worth giving up 99 minutes at a festival for, I don’t know what is.

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