The Big Sick (2017)
An Awkward True Story.
Smart, funny and genuinely sincere, The Big Sick proves that there’s still plenty to explore in the rom-com genre, this ‘sick flick’ deviating from today’s ever-growing landscape of poorly scripted, improv-laden comedies. Written by Pakistani-American stand-up slash actor Kumail Nanjiani and his now-wife, comedy writer-producer Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick tells the stranger than fiction, real-life story of how the pair got together, mainly their rocky courtship period, the semi-autobiographical flick navigating sensitive terrain such as cultural identity, age-old prejudices, commitment and modern love, along with the costs of pursuing one’s pipe dream, even at the risk of disappointing family — contemporary subjects, specific to Nanjiani’s story, which are bound to resonate with audiences for generations to come.
Best known for his work in HBO’s Silicon Valley (2014), as well as his memorable bit parts in films such as Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) and Fist Fight (2017), Kumail Nanjiani finally finds himself in a leading role, the scene stealing 39-year-old clearly headed for stardom. Produced by the great Judd Apatow and directed by Nanjiani’s long-time friend Michael Showalter, The Big Sick sees Kumail play a younger, fictionalized version of himself, a struggling Chicago comic who works as an Uber driver and sleeps on an inflatable mattress in a shoddy apartment, which he shares with his second-rate comedian roommate, Chris (Kurt Braunohler).
One night, while performing at his regular comedy club, Kumail is dotingly heckled by a sassy grad-student, who’s studying to become a therapist, named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), the two connecting almost right away. After inviting Emily over to watch George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the pair begins to fall for one another, Kumail’s self-proclaimed ‘nerdism’ and love for classic B-grade horror, and Emily’s open-type nature, casually laughing at her shaggy Goth-inspired high school fashion (which earned her the nickname Beetlejuice), making them an irresistible match-up. As time passes, the couple — who repeatedly insist that they’re not dating — grow more and more fond of each another, their simple one-night stand eventually blossoming into the real deal.
The problem is Kumail happens to be trapped between two very different worlds, his current life as a fledgling Chicago stand-up versus his reality, where his family of traditional Muslims — father Azmat (seasoned Bollywood star Anupam Kher) and mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) — insist on arranging a marriage for him, his forceful mom inviting an array of eligible Pakistani bachelorettes to ‘drop by’ whenever Kumail is around. You see, the arranged marriage thing worked for his older brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), who seems content with his partner Fatima (Shenaz Treasury) and his current life, Kumail’s parents urging him to settle down — like any good folks, they just want their son to be happy, so long as he partakes in their cultural traditions. Caught between two very different identities, Kumail is unsure of who he is, afraid of telling his family about the white woman who’s become very important to him, the woman who wants to meet her boyfriend’s parents and vice versa.
The bubble finally bursts when Emily learns that Kumail hasn’t told his folks about her, the doe-eyed blonde tearily asking whether he can imagine a world where they end up together. Sadly, Emily breaks the relationship off, with Kumail reluctantly moving on. That’s until he gets a call, late one night, where he learns that Emily has fallen ill with a mysterious sickness and has been rushed to hospital. Arriving at her bedside, the doctors tell Kumail that they’re going to put his (ex) girlfriend into an induced coma until they can figure out what’s wrong with her. Enter Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth (an impeccably matched Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), who fly in from North Carolina to be with their daughter, their arrival putting Kumail in a bit of an uncomfortable spot, their little girl’s former flame forced to get to know her heartbroken parents under dire circumstances and the stories they’ve heard of the recent breakup.
While none of this sounds overly humorous, the script by Nanjiani and his wife Gordon is touching, captivating and, yes, very funny, the twosome navigating the highs and lows of each character’s individual journey whilst throwing numerous pop culture references and daring jokes about ISIS into the mix. A terrific scene that sees the fierce Beth and the down-to-earth Terry try to support Kumail during a sticky set at his comedy club is just one example of the sharp, intuitive writing on display, director Showalter handling the film’s many tonal shifts with confidence. What’s more, Showalter is great with his actors and has a good eye for detail, the filmmaker — who’s best known for co-producing and starring in the 2001 cult movie Wet Hot American Summer (now a successful Netflix series) — understanding that even minor players should feel somewhat three-dimensional. Kumail’s parents, for instance, are an excellent representation of those who find meaning in tradition, whilst the would-be bride Khadija (Vella Lovell) — who entertains Kumail’s family with a nifty trick using a $20 note — feels like a bona fide person as opposed to a plot device.
Although Mr. Nanjiani makes the most of his first starring role, it’s Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks (2012), who really does the bulk of the heavy lifting, seeing as it’s Kazan who needs to make a lasting impression before her character does a Houdini, the narrative then shifting its focus squarely onto Kumail. Basically, viewers need to fall for Emily in the same way that our leading man does. Thankfully, Kazan is wonderful as the smart, caring Emily, the 33-year-old’s shining presence resonating even when she’s missing in action throughout the movie’s midsection. One minor complaint: given that Emily V. Gordon is one of the flick’s writers, it’s always apparent that the character of Emily won’t succumb to her illness, this autobiographic element robbing the film of some of its dramatic tension.
Funny man Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond (1996), is quite good in a dramatic-type role as the weathered father Terry, while Holly Hunter, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), is dynamite as his robust wife Beth, the couple sharing palpable chemistry with Nanjiani and together as a unit, their marital hiccups eventually coming to light. Last, but certainly not least, we have Nanjiani’s real-life buddies, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler, who appear as Kumail’s stand-up pals Mary, CJ and Chris respectively, this fun threesome apparently building on their pre-existing relationships for the film.
Just like a majority of Judd Apatow’s other productions, The Big Sick’s main drawback is its lengthy 120-minute run time, the flick trotting for a little longer than it should, chiefly in its third act. When it does finally draw to a close, this unique rom-com doesn’t conclude in your traditional Hollywood style manner, the movie ending with a sense of uncertainty that rings very true to life. Tackling weighty themes with a light playful touch, The Big Sick is a refreshing blend of humor, sorrow, anger and love, this atypical date flick another winner for Apatow, who seems to have a knack for finding up-and-coming talent, and star Kumail Nanjiani, who clearly has what it takes to become the next big comedy sensation.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie