Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano
Director: Michael Showalter
Running Time: 119 mins
Synopsis: Kumail is a struggling stand-up comedian based in Chicago. One night he meets Emily (Kazan) in the crowd and they begin a reserved courtship. Unfortunately he is a Pakistani man and his parents are determined to set him up in an arranged marriage. Further complicating things is a mysterious illness that befalls Emily. Placed into an induced coma Kumail sticks by her side and bonds with her parents (Romano and Holly Hunter), hoping in vain that she will awaken.
You’d be forgiven upon reading the above synopsis in thinking that The Big Sick is just another schmaltzy romantic drama, with a sideline in emotional baggage with its sickness storyline. But there is one crucial element involved that helps turn it into something far deeper, far more complex and far more entertaining. The Big Sick’s events are all true. Written by real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon, with Nanjiani playing himself (always a risk) but Gordon substituted by the glowing Zoe Kazan. There is an emotional truth to proceedings that elevates this above other films of its ilk.
Kumail is a struggling young comedian, forced to perform nightly shows to a small crowd in the vague hope that he may be spotted by a large promoter. He is surrounded by a bunch of other like-minded comedians and their interactions are witty, crude and realistic. They are not exactly fleshed out beyond stock types but the warmness of their banter is enthralling. One such uncomfortable night of stand-up provides a light in the introduction of Emily. Heckling him jovially and later sharing flirtatious conversations with him at the bar. Before long they are in bed, and slowly meeting each other again and again, despite her insistence that she isn’t looking for anything serious. These moments work so effectively due to their subtlety. Rather than grand declarations of love and romantic courtship, their bond is secured through the little moments between them. Playful fighting on the couch or the embarrassing nervousness around shitting in your partners home for the first time (a rarely seen but truthful aspect to all early relationships), you feel their connection without the need for longing looks in each others eyes, declarations of love etc.
It certainly helps that both of them deliver quiet moving performances. Nanjiani would seem to have it easy, seeing as he is playing himself and all. But he uses that to reveal real depth, whilst never forgetting to keep it light, particularly as things get darker. His witty comedic observations offer a nice counterpoint to the dramatic turns the film takes. It certainly must have felt slightly surreal for him to be reenacting such a major part of his life, especially adding a few fictional touches to flesh this out as a movie, but he is never less than truthful. A late film moment of public catharsis is a little cliched but Nanjiani reins it in just enough to elicit the necessary tears. As the actress playing his surrogate wife Kazan offers more than the usual Zooey Deschanel pixie-eyed girl that these films often lean on, instead portraying a girl with tender eccentricities and gentle vulnerabilities. She gifts Emily enough dimensions that you still feel the weight of their relationship despite her having to spend the majority of the film in a coma.
This major turning point is handled with care and sensitivity, never truly explaining what is happening with her helping to convey the confusion of what must have been a deeply troubling moment for all involved. Having just had a huge argument prior to Emily’s sudden illness, Kumail feels a large swathe of guilt, portraying his general bewilderment of what to do with humour and reserved emotion. At this juncture the film introduces its best dynamic, the relationship Kumail builds with her parents. Angry at him for hurting their daughter but slowly realising the strength and affection he feels towards her they begin to bond. Holly Hunter gives a firecracker of a performance, fiercely protective of her daughter but becoming gently warm towards Kumail as he breaks down her defences. However it is Ray Romano who delivers some truly first class work. Often a whiny weak presence here he is a slightly bumbling yet lovably endearing fellow. His attempts to talk to Kumail about 9/11 are awkward but offer a vein of truth in the confusion White Middle-American folk face when confronted by cultures they desperately don’t understand. Later on as him and Kumail grow close Romano delivers some of the most painfully honest material, on the difficulties of marriage, the cost of love and the challenges of being a father.
All these aspects are clearly a result of the screenwriters willing to present these events honestly and without fear of how it may present actual people in their lives. Same goes for Kumail’s family, who are presented as loving but deeply rigid in sticking to their cultural beliefs. The arranged marriage angle is possibly the weakest part of the film, offering very little to what we have seen before, particularly in British films such as Bend it like Beckham which have never been afraid to deal with these multi-cultural romances. Unwilling to challenge his family by meeting numerous Pakistani girls during some awkward dinnertime dates, before the inevitable revelation of who he really is to his mum and dad. Refreshingly the film never truly resolves this matter, with the playful performances helping to offset the narrative familiarity.
Director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) lets his cast and the script do the heavy lifting, but he could’ve been slightly more aggressive in the editing. The film sags a little in the second half, with their inevitable reconciliation after she wakes (and before you cry out, no this is not a spoiler as the two of them wrote the damn film) perhaps going on a little too long. Although there is little denying that the last shot is hugely touching, offering a note of heartwarming romance that is unsentimental and affecting. The Big Sick is also easily the funniest film of the year so far, never forgetting that true drama and emotion hits hardest when sneaking in through the comedic backdoor.
Verdict: The Big Sick’s familiar story beats and themes are giving lashings of humour and honesty due to the true story at its heart, with the believable performances the delightful cherry on top.