The Big Sick.

The Big Sick was one of the few bright spots in an ugly summer for the movies, racking up over $40 million in a limited release to lead all indie films from 2017, 2016, or 2015. The romantic comedy is a rarity in its genre, a genuinely funny film with a big heart that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and is boosted by two strong supporting performances by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Oh, and one of the two romantic leads spends about half of the film in a medically-induced coma. (I know, it’s serious.) Amazon purchased The Big Sick in the spring but hasn’t put it on Prime (yet), so you can rent it from the usual sites in the meantime, including amazon and iTunes.

The script draws from the true story of Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), incorporating her real-life illness and the cultural conflict Kumail faced as the secular son of religious, traditional Pakistani parents in Chicago. The two strike up an unlikely relationship that falls apart when Emily finds out that Kumail hasn’t told his parents, who expect him to make an arranged marriage to a girl of Pakistani descent, that he’s dating a white woman. Shortly after their breakup, however, Emily ends up in the hospital with what appears to be a serious infection, and one of her friends calls Kumail – perhaps unaware how things ended between them – to ask him to go be with her in the ER until her parents get into town. In the interim, the doctors put Emily into a coma, so that when her folks, played by Hunter and Romano, arrive, Kumail meets them for the first time under strained cirumstances, and since they know what he did, they’re not especially open to his presence. Over the remainder of the film, of course, they grow fond of each other, pushed along by outside events, while Kumail has to confront his inner conflict between fealty to his parents and his desire for an independent, non-Muslim life in the U.S.

While Nanjiani is affable and charming throughout the film, Hunter and Romano – especially Hunter – carry this movie beyond regular meet-cute territory, with performances that manage to feel real without crossing into pure sentiment. Hunter, playing Beth, pulses with a sort of quiet rage that spills out in the most unlikely place, where she defends Nanjiani from a bigoted heckler, signaling (obviously) a turning point in her view of her daughter’s ex and making clear that his ethnicity or background are just not relevant to her. The strained relationship Beth and Terry (Romano) have also gets a little more explanation as the story progresses, but this is primarily about how Kumail and Emily’s parents formed a bond while Emily was under, and Kumail’s own realization that he’d rather defy his family and face the consequences than walk away from Emily forever.

There are bits of The Big Sick that don’t work as well, that feel a bit more like, if not exactly cheap laughs, then slightly less expensive ones. I don’t know how true to life the scenes of Kumail with his family are, but we’ve certainly seen these assimilation stories before, right down to the mom blithely pretending she’s not trying to arrange a marriage for her son while she’s obviously trying to arrange a marriage for her son. His parents come off as very one-note in the film, and in an unconvincing way – the importance of tradition or religion for them is just assumed, never shown, and their reaction when he reveals that he’s dating a white girl and has no intention of accepting an arranged marriage feels out of proportion to what we’ve seen before then.

I also didn’t feel like Kazan, who of course isn’t in the movie as much as Nanjiani, brought a ton of personality to Emily’s character; she’s little, and has a cute smile, but there’s little depth to her personality on screen and Kazan’s youthful appearance ends up working against the character by making her seem insubstantial. The story is more about Kumail and Emily’s parents than it is about Emily, and there’s enough chemistry between the two leads that the romance itself is credible, but I thought Kazan was less than ideal for the role.

This feels like perfect fodder for The Golden Globes, with that show’s separate category for comedies, and could end up with nominations for best comedy, maybe best actor in a comedy (Nanjiani), and perhaps a supporting nod for Hunter (although the Globes don’t distinguish between supporting roles in dramas or comedies). It seems most likely to me to end up a film that while generally unrecognized by industry awards makes a slew of critics’ year-end top ten lists.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

This year’s top 100 prospects package will be posted the week of February 4th. It’ll begin Tuesday the 5th with the org rankings, followed by the top 100 itself on the 6th, and then org top tens on the 7th and 8th.

The sweet if lightweight romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was nominated for three Golden Globes, one for best comedy/musical film, and one each for its stars, Ewan Macgregor and Emily Blunt, all worthy choices given how bad most comedies, especially romantic ones, tend to be. Salmon Fishing takes a fantastical story as a way to bring its two characters together in a way that might not be entirely believable but at least doesn’t talk down to its audience and delivers a few moments of brilliantly funny dialogue along the way.

The entire premise of the film is a bit absurd – as the title indicates, a wealthy Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked) with a passion for fly-fishing has decided to embark on a project to build a river in his desert country, stock it with salmon, and popularize the sport while also providing a foundation for agriculture in the inhospitable hinterlands. (There’s a lot more to this idea than the film describes: Yemen needs new economic drivers due to imminent depletion of its oil reserves, but at the same time, groundwater supplies are also disappearing, making this project infeasible in reality.) For political reasons, the British government is keen to help the sheik by providing its expertise, which connects the sheik’s investment adviser Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt) with the peevish fisheries expert Dr. Fred Jones (Ewan Macgregor). The two fail to hit it off right away, but rather than providing a cliched story about differing personalities clashing, the script makes their initial disconnect strictly topical: He can’t get past the ridiculousness of the idea, while she, realizing the same, has to move ahead with it anyway because it’s her job to do so and the Crown is making it clear that she has no choice in the matter. The romance that develops seems less forced as a result, even if there’s a bit of a leap from the development of their working relationship to actual love – although if you put me in the same room with Emily Blunt for a few minutes, I’d probably fall in love with her too.

The complication – and, of course, there must be one – is that neither character is exactly unattached. Dr. Jones (the simple man with the simple name) is married, not exactly unhappily but far from happily, while Ms. Chetwode-Talbot (the more nuanced character) has a new boyfriend who’s just been deployed to Afghanistan and, early on in the film, is declared missing in action. Nothing that develops on either side is terribly surprising; it’s a romantic comedy and those roads tend to all lead to the same destination. Salmon Fishing surmounts the obstacles of its genre primarily through the subtle changes in its two main characters, and the excellent performances behind them.

Everyone else in the film is just a prop, however. Sheiks, sultans, and other wealthy Arab characters in films are nearly always dissolute wastrels, burning their oil fortunes on material goods and women, or Westernized sages who appear to have come down from the mountaintops with the wisdom of centuries. Our sheik here comes from the latter group, but has virtually no story of his own, and the opposition of local Islamists is a plot device rather than a serious subject to at least be discussed a little more seriously by the central characters behind the fishing scheme. Kristin-Scott Thomas has some great lines, including by far the funniest bit in the film (involving her son’s hooded sweatshirt), as the Crown’s head PR person, a no-nonsense power-broker always looking for an angle to sell and showing no indication of any kind of consience or even emotion underneath her shrill exterior. Aside from her few good one-liners, the film drags when neither Macgregor nor Blunt is on-screen.

Salmon Fishing does hint at some of the environmental and ethical concerns around overfishing, salmon farming, and water usage, never seriously but enough that the script can’t be accused of ignoring the subjects, although I was more shocked to see the fish-loving Dr. Jones feeding bread to the koi in his backyard pond. (Not only is it nutritionally useless, but koi aren’t exactly big bread-bakers and have no ability to properly digest gluten.) I wouldn’t ask too much more of a light-hearted romance – it’s nice to see these subjects mentioned, but the goal is to bring these two characters together without insulting our intelligence along the way, which Salmon Fishing does reasonably well. And if you disagree, well, looking at Emily Blunt isn’t the worst use I’ll find for two hours this week.