Sundance 2017: 'The Big Sick' + 'Roxanne Roxanne'

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick (2017)

These two Sundance entries introduce fast-talking protagonists who take the art of comedic dialogue to new heights in speed and certainly in social satire.

The Big Sick

Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher
Studio: FilmNation Entertainment
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-01-20 (Sundance Film Festival)

Roxanne Roxanne

Director: Michael Larnell
Cast: Chanté Adams, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali, Elvis Nolasco, Kevin Phillips, Shenell Edmonds
Studio: Significant Productions
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-01-22 (Sundance Film Festival)

Have you ever wondered why jokes in scripted comedies aren't funny? Have you ever watched an independent film without a single punch line? Two Sundance entries, The Big Sick and Roxanne Roxanne, buck that trend. They introduce fast-talking protagonists who take the art of comedic dialogue to new heights, in speed, and certainly in social satire. Based on true stories, both films succeed because of the control their real-life heroes had over production. When they fail, they fail for the same reason.

The first half of The Big Sick, an audience favorite at the Festival, recalls the great work of Cary Grant and Ben Hecht, the star and writer of the fastest-talking comedy ever, His Girl Friday. Starring stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjani, and co-written by Nanjani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, the film follows Kumail, son of uber-traditional Pakistani immigrants, as he meets white psychology Masters student Emily (Zoe Kazan).

As the two fall into a casual romance, Kumail relies on his quick wit to fend off his mother's (Zenobia Shroff) attempts to pair him up with Muslim Pakistani girls and to conceal these attempts from Emily. As Emily, Kazan is fantastic, unselfconscious and deadpan, a welcome respite from typical romcom leads so often preoccupied with sorting out the rules of dating. Instead of these distractions, the couple has another, resolving their daily disagreements with wordplay… until it turns out that they face real obstacles. When Emily discovers photos of Pakistani brides in Nanjani's cigar box, she calls it quits.

The comedy reaches new heights of absurdity when Emily suddenly falls ill. Her mysterious sickness leads doctors to put her into an induced coma. Kumail, summoned by Emily's friends, has to call in her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), whom he hasn't met previously. Neither does he have their phone number. "Sorry," he mumbles, pressing Emily's limp finger on her smartphone's unlock button. As wiry and pokerfaced as her daughter, Beth tells off Kumai, then comes to his rescue. "Do you want more people in ISIS?" she yells at a heckler who shouts, "Go back to ISIS!" during one of Kumail's standup performances, one he does together with his ex-girlfriend's parents. The energetic Hunter and the phlegmatic Nanjani have amazing screen presence together.

Unfortunately, The Big Sick doesn't carry this black comedy all the way through. Once Emily wakes from her coma, the dialogue falls back into the familiar relationship talk. But the first hour gives an idea of great work Nanjani and Gordon might do in the future.

Chanté Adams in Roxanne Roxanne (2017)

Three minutes into Roxanne Roxanne, an MC awkwardly introduces '80s hip-hop culture to the movie audience. He announces to a Queensbridge Projects crowd gathered for a street rap battle something that they should surely know, that hip-hop includes rap music, breakdancing, and graffiti. Then a nine-year-old girl steps up to compete against a man twice her size. The man is here to challenge her championship status. "Can I curse?" a young Shanté (Taliyah Whitaker) asks her mother (Nia Long), who retorts, "I don't care what you do as long as you get that fifty dollars."

The protracted "Roxanne Wars" -- battles between female rappers that flared in 1984 and lasted for years -- hold a prized place in hip hop history. When her improvised takedown of UTFO track "Roxanne Roxanne" went up the radio charts, 14-year-old Lolita "Shanté" Gooden became an instant hip hop sensation. Her recording sparked 50 more 12-inch singles, by her and by others, and inspired several battle show tours.

Roxanne Roxanne displays some of that original brilliant fast rapping. Both the older young Shanté and the older version (newcomer Chanté Adams) hold their own in on-screen battles, surely no easy task. The beat of the artist's spoken words spills into Shanté's everyday interactions with the kids on her block, producing hilarious displays of 1980s black girl power.

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Unfortunately, on-screen Shanté loses that beat entirely when it comes to her confrontations with her boozing mother, her double-dealing manager, and her abusive boyfriend (Mahershala Ali). Writer-director Michael Larnell explains to Rolling Stone that he and the real "Roxanne Shanté", who is also the biopic's executive producer, decided to focus on Shanté's personal life rather than her hip-hop career. In this focus on black kids finding their ways in new kinds of "hoods", Roxanne Roxanne might recall a couple of other, very different films, Dope (2015), also produced by I Am Other, and Moonlight (2016), also starring Mahershala Ali. In the end, Larnell's movie explores hip-hop history only slightly, rarely venturing beyond a cursory primer on the culture.

Roxanne Roxanne might have focused on Shanté's experience while delving more deeply into hip-hop as an artistic practice. It would be great to see some of that breakdancing and graffiti, mentioned at the outset, or to learn more about beatboxing, a vocal percussion technique used by Biz Markie. In the film, Biz Markie (Nigel Alexander Fullerton) helps out Shanté when her DJ quits on the eve of a performance. In real life, Biz Markie and Shanté continued to perform together after that episode. As a delightful rap tribute to Shanté by young NAS at the end of the film suggests, the beat of Shanté's spoken performances are key to conquering the tribulations of her personal life.

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