The Big Sick (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s more challenging than a comedy that can truly make you laugh? A comedy that can truly make you feel.

(That wasn’t a joke…unless you consider comedies that try for drama and fail or dramas that become unintentional comedies.)

And for me, there are but a handful of comedies that make me equally laugh and feel—“City Lights,” “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “50/50,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” among a few others. Thankfully, I feel the need to make room in that hand for “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy with good laughs, winning characters, and moments of drama that make us want everything to turn out alright for them.

“The Big Sick” is semi-autobiographical, and I’ll get to that after I describe the basic plot. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars as himself as a young, Pakistani, aspiring stand-up comic who wants to live the American Dream while his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are more traditional in their Pakistani culture. They’re fine with him doing stand-up comedy and not being a lawyer or a doctor, and all they ask is that he marry a Pakistani Muslim woman. Every time Kumail comes over for dinner, there’s always a young, single Pakistani-American woman who just “happens to be in the neighborhood” and comes in to join, invited by Kumail’s parents as a way of pressuring him to marry. (As Kumail explains, “In Pakistan, arranged marriage is just marriage.”) During one of his gigs, a pretty, young white woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) heckles him (well, actually, she just yells “whoo-hoo!” but as Kumail explains, any sort of audience reaction other than laughter is considered “heckling” because it can throw a comic off his game). After the show, he chats her up, and this starts a complicated love affair.

Kumail and Emily get along lovely, but before long, Emily realizes how complicated Kumail’s deal is. He won’t take her to meet his parents, who would disapprove of this interracial relationship. This causes them to break up, and this is when things get even worse. Emily falls ill shortly after the breakup, and Kumail is there to sign for her to be put into a medically induced coma in the hospital so that doctors can find out what’s wrong with her. To make matters more awkward, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are in town to be there when Emily wakes up…and while they wait with Kumail, who hasn’t met them before, they already know he ended things with her and that he’s kind of a jerk. Awkward levels rising! But the situation allows the three of them to bond as Kumail realizes how much he does care for Emily and how difficult it’s going to be to make his own parents understand what he wants.

And so here we have a “romcom” that’s beyond your regular “romcom,” as the girl is unconscious for most of the movie and the boy hopes she comes out of this alright so he can admit his true feelings for her. That Kumail and Emily are so cute together for the first half-hour or so of the film makes us want them to stay together, even when the truth about Kumail’s insecurities and family are revealed, leading to the breakup (which then leads to the coma—bad timing). It’s also important that we feel the growth and change within Kumail as his world comes crashing down on him in this confusing time in his life, and he just has to admit to himself and his parents about his feelings, even if it means the possibility of being disowned.

But the most interesting part about “The Big Sick” is its inspiration. The film is based on a true story that actually happened to the film’s two screenwriters, who turn out to be Kumail Nanjiani and the real-life Emily (Emily V. Gordon), who went through this unusual courtship 10 years ago and are now married.

Yeah, I know—spoiler alert, I guess; Emily turns out OK and she and Kumail live happily ever after. And they ended up writing one of the best romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Everything about the film works. The romance is fun to watch, as Kumail and Emily deliver great chemistry with witty, cutesy banter (and one very funny moment involving Emily trying to sneak out at night for reasons I’ll leave you to discover). The scenes with Kumail and his family at dinner are convincing and effective, with light comedy (such as Kumail’s mother acting surprised by every new visitor/potential-bride) and some quiet pathos. The scenes with Kumail and his stand-up colleagues (both talented and untalented) on and off stage are very funny and true, with convincing dialogue that establishes Kumail’s American ambitions. The stuff involving Kumail and Emily’s parents waiting worriedly while finding common ground with each other is very well-done. The film makes me feel and laugh. It does exactly what “50/50” did just as well as that one did, which is take real, complicated, difficult issues, show them for what they are, find the humor that can be found wherever it is, bring the convincing amount of levity, and there you have the makings of a sleeper hit. When the characters feel real and you understand what they’re going through, you’ll stay with them, feel with them, and laugh with them.

But the film is a comedy, and the Judd Apatow producer credit makes note of that, and the laughs aren’t forced; they just come naturally so that you’re not confused by what kind of movie you’re watching when it comes to the more serious moments. My favorite funny moment is when Emily’s parents come to see Kumail do his stand-up, and Beth has the perfect reaction to a heckler who shouts a racist remark. (That’s all I’ll say about that, but let’s just say Holly Hunter shines in that moment.)

I’m not too familiar with Kumail Nanjiani’s work as an actor, so I’m not sure of the limits of his range. But seeing him play a fictional version of himself, he does a solid job. He’s likable, a bit narcissistic, and believable, making for a lead we can root for. And he’s acting as himself based on a true-life experience involving him, so of course he’s going to put his all into it.

Ever since her brilliant work in 2012’s “Ruby Sparks,” one of my favorite romance films, I can’t help but admire Zoe Kazan in everything she’s done since. And as Emily, she’s wonderful. She lights up the screen with her presence, and even when she’s in a coma for much of the movie, I don’t feel that she’s entirely left us.

Anumpam Kher and Zenobia Shroff are both terrific in their roles, trying to make their roles more than one-dimensional strict parents and show how upset they can be because of their love for their son mixed with their own traditions. Holly Hunter is great as Emily’s feisty, tough mother, while Ray Romano, as Emily’s pushover father, shows dimensions I never would’ve expected.

There is just so much for me to admire about “The Big Sick” that I embrace it wholeheartedly. And I almost forgot to mention the director, Michael Showalter, which might be forgiven seeing as how the script might be the thing that truly makes the movie. But Showalter deserves credit for bringing the vision to life. In fact, everyone deserves credit for how well this film turned out. The director. The writers. The cast. Apatow. The whole crew. And it’s one of the best films of the year.

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