I’ve been telling my film students for the last 20 years that they have been raised during one of the worst periods for romantic comedies in film history. I’ve encouraged them to pretty much ignore what passes for both comedy and romance in films made in their lifetimes, and to go back to the last years of the last century and the first couple of years of this one to find some good ones (though I still claim the best were from the ’30s and ‘40s). The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan/Billy Crystal days have some good offerings, as well as my personal favorite during that time—Notting Hill.
Now, finally, there is a romantic comedy that works. It shouldn’t—it has too may disparate elements, too many subplots, and a variety of acting styles. Yet it all holds together as one of the best romantic comedies in ages.
A warning to those hoping for a PG- or PG-13 film. This is essentially a PG-13 film with a number of f-bombs, especially in the first half, that have turned it into an R. If that’s a deal-breaker, avoid it.
For the rest of the viewing audience, this is (finally!) an intelligent, genuinely funny, genuinely touching film. Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow (but don’t let that dissuade you), the film stars Pakistani-American actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the script with wife Emily V. Gordon, who crafted a fictionalized version of their relationship (and its manifold cultural and family difficulties). The title is something of a spoiler, but the more serious aspects of the film bring both a real-world depth and a context for the humor, which veers from cute and delightful to breathtakingly outrageous.
The humor comes from a multitude of directions, starting with the flirty back-and forth between the two leads (the female lead, Emily, being the adorable Zoe Kazan). Stand-up figures in a great deal of the film, as the lead character is a developing stand-up comedian (also named Kumail). The semi-skewed, semi-snarky humor of the stand-up permeates the film, and provides the most cinematically significant marriage of stand-up and film language since the groundbreaking Annie Hall. Most films featuring stand-up comics merely shoehorn them into “funny” situations; here the humor arises from the comic perspectives that draw forth humor laughs and from any number of situations throughout the narrative. It’s what makes this film continually funny and unpredictable even through some rather conventional romantic stumbling blocks.
Perhaps the least expected but most valuable subplot involves the introduction of Emily’s parents, the powerful team of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. They have reason to be hesitant about Kumail when “the big sick” occurs, but they bring their own quite hefty baggage with them. Hunter, as always, is a force of nature, and she more than convincingly portrays a woman who will not be denied. For those not paying attention the last few years, the big surprise is Ray Romano, who just as convincingly plays a father in pain and with a boatload of regrets. His comic skills are used at times, but much less than one might think. It’s the kind of surprise performance that in a weak year might be touted for Best Supporting Actor.
The film almost tries for too much, covering too many people’s stories and heading down too many side streets. But due to Nanjiani’s charm and Showalter’s sure directorial hand, the film holds together. Comically, this is a brave film in how far out on a limb it occasionally goes, but it doesn’t feel brave, just enjoyable. If you, like me, have been waiting a long time for a funny, heartfelt, fresh romantic comedy, your wait is over.