The Big Sick **** / *****
Directed by: Michael Showalter.
Written by: Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani.
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail), Zoe Kazan (Emily), Holly Hunter (Beth), Ray Romano (Terry), Anupam Kher (Azmat), Zenobia Shroff (Sharmeen), Adeel Akhtar (Naveed), Bo Burnham (CJ), Aidy Bryant (Mary), Kurt Braunohler (Chris), Vella Lovell (Khadija), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Nurse Judy), Jeremy Shamos (Bob Dalavan), David Alan Grier (Andy Dodd), Ed Herbstman (Sam Highsmith), Shenaz Treasury (Fatima).
I’ve never been much of a fan of romantic comedies – which peaked sometime in the 1930s, when great directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and George Cukor were making them, and haven’t much evolved since, except to make everything less funny and charming. The Big Sick. For the most part, romantic comedies have followed the very same path – two impossibly attractive white people, with really cool jobs, fall in love, but something holds them apart for most of the movie, until in the end, they fall into each other’s arms and the film ends, just as the real work for their relationship should be starting. The new romantic comedy, The Big Sick, doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to romcoms – but it does feature two important twists in it – the first being that the male star of the film, Kumai Nanjiani, isn’t white, and comes from a Muslim family, and the family pressure on him to do what they want (i.e.: an arranged marriage) feels stronger than normal, and second is that the female star of the film – Zoe Kazan – spends most of the film in a medically induced coma. As far as obstacles to a traditional romantic comedy couple go, either of these would feel much more real than most romcoms, but the duo combined results in a film, that somehow feels organic, even as it mines (almost) every romantic comedy cliché it can.
It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising that the film has the ring of authenticity, since it was written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon – and was based on their own courtship. It would pretty much have to be a true story, because otherwise you wouldn’t believe it. The story follows Nanjiani, as he plays a version of himself, a struggling standup comedian, who is lying to his parents about his plans to take the LSTATs (he has none) and his interest in all the young Pakistani women who just happen to “drop in” whenever Kumail goes to his parents for dinner. He knows that, like his brother, he probably will marry one of them sooner or later, but he’s hoping it’s going to be later. When he meets Emily (Kazan) at the comedy club – when she heckles him (or as she says, “Woohoos” him) they both think it’s only going to be a fling, but then they just cannot stop hanging out together. They both have secrets – he holds his closer to his chest that she does – and eventually it all comes out, and they break up. And then, the coma. Kumail feels guilty, and wants to be at the hospital for her – even after her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive – which gives lots of time for awkward conversions to ensue.
Almost everything about The Big Sick works. Nanjiani’s point of view as a secular Muslim in America, grappling with his more conservative family and their expectations, and what he really wants, would be enough to fuel most movies – in particular because the screenplay takes time to make his family’s point-of-view come across as more reasoned than it might otherwise. As Emily’s parents, both Holly Hunter and especially Ray Romano give great performances (to be fair, they may well be equally great performances, but we’re used to seeing Hunter this good as a feisty, little firecracker of a woman, which she does to perfection, but Romano’s more laid back routine, adds a dimensional to his usual sad sack persona). The standup comedy stuff – and the friendships Nanjiani has within that world – also ring true as well.
There are certainly nits to be picked here – the biggest one being that someone, even though the real life Emily co-wrote the movie, her character feels underwritten – Kazan breathes a lot a life into the role, but I wish they may have taken a second to explore her post-coma outlook more. The film does feel a little long (Judd Apatow is one of the producers after all) – even if director Michael Showalter keeps the pace up nicely. A cynic could complain that the film is a little too overly engineered to be a manipulative crowd-pleaser as well.
But only a real cynic could truly dislike a film like The Big Sick – which is funny and sweet and insightful and just downright entertaining. It doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy as much as it tinkers with it – but here, that’s enough.