Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
The romantic comedy is one of the cornerstones of Hollywood cinema. It is comfortable. It is entertaining. It is delightful. But it is rarely insightful. It is rarely revelatory. It is rarely personal. First-time screenwriters and married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have drawn on their own incredible story of a most unconventional courtship to create just such a film in The Big Sick.
Low level Chicago stand up comedian and occasional Uber driver Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) meets psychology student Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows and they instantly hit it off. Over the next few months their romance blossoms, but Kumail, a Pakistani-America, keeps it secret from his family knowing his parents would never approve of his dating a non-Pakistani girl. Confronted by Kumail’s inability to reconcile his feelings for Emily with his desire not to upset his family, Emily calls an end to their relationship. Not long after, Kumail receives word that Emily has been hospitalised with a mysterious infection. Pressed by the doctors, it falls to Kumail to not only give the approval for her to be placed in a medically induced coma, but to inform her parents. Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) travel in from out of town to be with their daughter, and while initially not interested in Kumail being around, in time their relationship grows. While all of this is happening, Kumail is being scouted for an appearance at the Montreal Comedy Festival which would be huge for his career.
As he did for Amy Schumer with Trainwreck, established comedy producer Judd Apatow has shepherded another upcoming comedic talent, Nanjiani (best known for his work on Silicon Valley), to a strong screen coming out. The Big Sick is an Amazon Studios production, with the streaming company stepping into the mid-range movie market seemingly abandoned by the major studios in their pursuit of blockbuster franchises.
While Nanjiani and Gordon are first time screenwriters, and there are occasional moments where that inexperience is evident, they have succeeded in creating a multi-faceted film which explores complex ideas and scenarios – from the immigrant experience to career ambitions to infidelity and loss – without feeling overstuffed. As a romantic comedy The Big Sick is perfectly charming and very funny, hitting the early familiar courtship beats in a fresh way. But once it moves into higher stakes territory it becomes entirely engrossing. Having prepared you to invest in these characters, Gordon and Nanjiani bring an incredible emotional honesty to these scenarios. Whether it is the parents utter terror at the prospect of losing a daughter, the emotional exhaustion of returning to the hospital day after day just to wait, Kumail’s commitment to his family even when it conflicts with his love for Emily or his frustration with the pulls between the traditional Pakistani world of his parents and the rest of his life, the emotions are real and the reactions authentic.
While the recent push for greater diversity on screen has primarily focused on African-American representation, The Big Sick sits alongside Aziz Ansari’s brilliant Netflix series Master of None as rare examinations of the Asian-American experience. While the scenes of Kumail’s awkward family dinners in which his mother parades a series of potential marriage options in front of him (arranged marriage being a cultural practice) have the potential to make things feel a bit ‘My Big Fat Pakistani Wedding,’ The Big Sick goes beyond the usual beats of the culture clash comedy to examine the migrant experience. In particular, it examines the differing experience of the first and second generation, with the first’s defiance of assimilation and the second’s tear between the cultural expectations and pressures of the old world and the lived normality of the new. The fact that Nanjiani’s character is a muslim, even if not a particularly devout one, adds an extra level of interest.
The film is solidly directed by Michael Showalter, who simply gets out of the way, letting the material speak for itself without needing to impose any attention grabbing style to it. In terms of performance, Nanjiani does a lot of the heavy lifting being in virtually every scene of the film and proves himself an engaging leading man. He shares a fun chemistry with Kazan in the early courtship scenes, and impressively handles the more dramatic moments, not to mention being able to put his ego to one side to play an early career stand up who is significantly less polished than he is in real life. Romano will surprise some with his dramatic chops, but the single most impressive performance in the film comes from Holly Hunter who enjoys the best role she has had for some time. Terrified of the prospect of losing her daughter to the point of irrationality, Hunter keeps the emotion so close to the surface without ever overplaying her hand.
At the end of the day what is most impressive about The Big Sick is that it can have its cake and eat it too. Nanjiani, Gordon and Showalter have crafted a film which is deeply personal and which insightfully discusses important issues, but still manages to work to great effect as a piece of entertainment.
Review by Duncan McLean
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