THE BIG SICK
By Nathan Evans
A decade ago any Judd Apatow produced comedy would’ve been a major studio release. Both fortunately and unfortunately the cinematic landscape has changed since the mid-2000’s Apatow renaissance that gave us such films as ‘The 40-Year Old Virgin’, ‘Knocked Up’, and ‘Superbad’. While I’m glad we live in a post ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ universe, I’m disappointed that today’s mainstream filmgoers can’t make room for smaller films as authentic, charming, and earnest as Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s ‘The Big Sick’.
While the film is produced by the aforementioned Apatow and directed by ‘The State’/ ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ alum Michael Showalter, the film truly belongs to Nanjiani and Gordon as its a dramatized account of the early courtship that led to their marriage. Kumail, a real life standup comedian, portrays himself in the film. He’s a Pakistani American living in Chicago, struggling to make it in the world of standup. He meets a pretty girl named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan, standing in for the real life Gordon) after she heckles him at one of his shows. The pair strike up a romance that’s tenuous at first, but quickly becomes serious; too serious for Kumail who’s being shopped around by his devoutly Islamic parents for an arranged marriage.
Kumail isn’t honest with his family about his conflicting interests in Islam and disinterest in getting married, nor is he up front with Emily about his family’s expectations. Just as their intimacy begins to grow, Emily finds out the truth and the pair suffer a breakup. They’re not separated for long before Emily is stricken by a mysterious illness that requires her to be put into a medically induced coma. With no one else to care for her, Kumail watches over her in the hospital until her parents arrive; a couple portrayed by the eccentric Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Realizing his mistake, Kumail decides to stick around, beginning a new, offbeat courtship with the comatose Emily through her parents.
Like last year’s fictional ‘Manchester by the Sea’, ‘The Big Sick’s’ biggest draw is its authenticity. While there is some creative license taken with their story, the film truly feels like real life. Unlike most romantic comedies, the initial meeting between Kumail and Emily isn’t too cutesy and their relationship develops in a way that feels natural. There are no grand gestures or dramatic proclamations. The pair kind of just start shacking up together until their eventual separation.
That authenticity extends to Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth. While Hunter at her Hunter-iest sometimes feels as if she’s in an entirely different movie (I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s excellent), Romano as Terry brings the sort of gruff warmth you’d expect from your girlfriend’s dad. All this is to say that Kumail’s relationship with them isn’t all peaches and rainbows either. While they soon grow close, the pair are rightfully initially wary of the man who broke their daughter’s heart before signing an order to put her in a medically induced coma.
That coma, though inevitable, brings about one of the film’s few weak points: Kazan’s absence. In the too short amount of time the film spends developing she and Nanjiani’s relationship, Kazan makes quite an impression. Though this is my first experience with her onscreen, she proves herself a charming presence as unique as the film itself. When her character falls out of the film’s narrative, we end up missing half of the equation that makes most films like this work.
The other half of the equation, Nanjiani, is a bit rough around the edges. While I’m a fan of his standup, he and Emily’s now defunct podcast ‘The Indoor Kids’, and of his character Dinesh on HBO’s hilarious and underrated ‘Silicon Valley’, it’s pretty clear throughout the film that he’s never had to stretch himself as an actor in quite this way before. While he is never bad in the film, his performance isn’t quite as deep as it could or should be at times.
The blame for that could be placed on the film’s realism. As previously stated, while it’s mostly refreshing, it does prevent the film from being as dramatic as it could be in spots. Admittedly this is a tight rope to walk. I’ve previously taken issue with films like ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ for exaggerating true life events, but here I feel like a bit more creative license could’ve been taken to give some of the film’s more dramatic moments a greater impact.
Ultimately these complaints are mostly just nitpicks for conventions that are required to tell this particular story. Kumail supplements his lack of technique with charm, and Hunter and Romano more than make up for Kazan’s absence. Their characters also feel like fully fleshed out people; people with lives that had their own complications before their daughter fell sick. Some of the film’s best moments have to do with their relationship rather than Kumail and Emily’s.
Kumail’s parents and family are another pleasant addition to the film. His mother’s transparent attempts to make a love connection for him are hilarious, and his rivalry with the successful-in-the-eyes of his parents brother, Naveed (‘The Dictator’s’ Adeel Akhtar) provides some quality laughs. The family also does a good job of both providing the film with a Muslim perspective and presenting audiences with a healthy portrait of an actual Muslim family. Something we don’t get enough of in Trump’s xenophobic America.
‘The Big Sick’ is one of the few successful comedies of 2017. It’s a real movie, not the loose connection of improvised scenes shot with a static camera you might expect from a product with Apatow’s name on it (not that I’m knocking those products. Apatow’s responsible for some of the greatest comedies of all time (also, unfortunately, ‘Funny People’)). It also isn’t a film that bends over backwards to fill every second with a joke. It’s patient in its approach and allows the comedy to naturally develop from the drama going on onscreen. If you’re looking for a reprieve from the glut of loud summer blockbusters permeating screens right now, then you need look no further.
RATING: 4 OUT OF 5
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