Movie Curiosities: The Big Sick

Here’s one that could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. Why? Three words: “Semi-autobiographical romantic comedy.” And I’m not talking about filmmakers writing what they know, I’m talking about stars who play themselves in a slightly modified version of their own life story, that they wrote and produced. There is so much potential in such a project to be loaded with hubris and incompetence, not to mention an obnoxious self-importance that comes with lack of objectivity. All of this could amount to a romantic comedy that’s neither romantic nor comical.

Mercifully, The Big Sick plays to its strengths in such a way that it’s far more effective precisely because it’s a partly biographical work.

This is the story of Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (here renamed “Emily Gardner” and immortalized by Zoe Kazan), both of whom wrote the screenplay. Long story short, the two of them meet and strike up a romance while Kumail is working as a stand-up comic and Emily is studying for her master’s. Trouble is, Kumail — a Pakistani immigrant — is under massive cultural and family pressure to be a good Muslim and take part in an arranged marriage. Not that he believes in any of that, he just plays along and goes through the motions for his family’s sake.

Naturally, Kumail doesn’t think to tell Emily or his parents about each other, knowing they’d freak out and disown him upon hearing about it. So of course that’s exactly what happens.

Cut to a short time after Emily dumps Kumail, and she comes down with some kind of infection. Until the doctors can figure out what’s going on, she’s put into a drug-induced coma and intubated. Kumail hangs around the hospital out of concern for his ex, which also makes him an effective sounding board for Emily’s parents (Terry and Beth, respectively played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Hilarity ensues, along with numerous ruminations about life, culture, comedy, love, etc.

To get this out of the way, Judd Apatow produced this. As a direct result, his typical style of “cringe humor” — letting the characters stick their feet in their mouths and then letting the actors improvise for as long as they can get away with embarrassing themselves — is on display. The good news, however, is that this doesn’t go on for very long at a time. And in many cases, the awkward moments are used in ways that effectively highlight the culture clash.

Furthermore, the awkward semi-improvised comedy beautifully serves the premise, both in the spontaneous attraction between love interests and in the helpless feeling of standing by while a loved one is potentially dying. And a great deal of that stems from the fact that… well, this actually happened. This was written by people who actually lived through this and remember the emotions involved. It’s especially obvious with regards to Nanjiani’s performance: When he’s conflicting with his family, wooing Emily, and awkwardly talking with her parents, it’s so perfectly obvious that every word spoken and every crease in his face is 100 percent authentic. And even if Gordon was in a coma through what constitutes most of the runtime, there’s no doubt that she could write her parents with that same kind of uncompromising love and honesty.

But of course the most important factor here is that everyone involved is genuinely talented. Nanjiani is a solid comedian with an effortless everyman charm, and Gordon herself has a fair bit of experience in writing and producing comedy. I’m sure it was a tall order finding someone to step in for Gordon, and Zoe Kazan was an inspired choice. She’s a tremendously underrated actress and not a very well-known name, but take it from somebody who’s seen Ruby Sparks and What If (both movies you should totally check out if you haven’t already): There was never any doubt that Kazan would crush this. She can deliver fantastic comedy, heartbreaking drama, and sizzling chemistry in any film, especially opposite the right scene partner. And her interplay with Nanjiani is perfectly on point from start to finish.

Still, the movie’s true hidden weapons are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. The two of them are completely in their respective zones as the sitcom dad and the neurotic mother, but the constant crushing fear of losing their daughter keeps the characters grounded. Even better, the two of them have such remarkable interplay that they’re equally engaging when they’re working together or shouting at each other. It’s a poignant reminder that even if Kumail and Emily get together, it’ll still be a constant everyday struggle to turn their relationship into “happily ever after”.

On the other side of the cultural gap, we have Kumail’s family. Anupham Kher and Zenobia Shroff play his parents, with Adeel Akhtar as his brother and Shenaz Treasury as the sister-in-law. They’re all funny enough, and they each get some pretty good jokes. In particular, Akhtar shows some effective interplay with Nanjiani, and Shroff can get a laugh without a word spoken. That said, everything about them is heightened to the point of absurdity. Without a grounding influence (as with Emily’s parents), they’re simply not all that interesting as characters. They act superbly as a sounding board for Kumail’s thoughts on his background, as he makes all manner of thoughtful and heartbreaking comments on the conservative culture he grew up with, but that doesn’t make the characters themselves any more interesting.

Then we have Kumail’s colleagues in the Chicago stand-up comedy scene. The three most prominent ones are CJ, Mary, and Chris; respectively played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler. The scenes between comedians are often marked by incessant put-down comedy, such that you may start to wonder why these people could possibly put up with each other. That said, these are all seasoned comedians, which brings a kind of legitimacy and suggests that this is how things really are behind the scenes. Moreover, while these characters talk a lot of shit, they’re still ultimately there for each other when the chips are down.

Also, it bears remembering how many comedians we’ve tragically lost to suicide and/or drug overdoses. Comedians are a different breed: Making jokes out of dark subject matter, repeating the same jokes night after night, facing down one heckler after another, touring on a constant basis, auditioning on a constant basis, getting rejected from gigs on a constant basis, and carving out a living on basically nothing can all take their toll. If they have to vent all of this by way of mocking each other, that makes a certain kind of sense.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for David Alan Grier, who makes a noteworthy cameo as a comedy club owner.)

On a final note, it’s probably worth pointing out all the different plot detours. There are a lot of fake-outs, false endings, and decisions that get made after great deliberation only to be reversed later on. It pads out the runtime and makes the plot a lot more convoluted. On the other hand, at least it means the movie has a plot, when the alternative might easily have happened. Moreover, this film was written by the husband/wife pairing that the lead characters are based on — we know for a fact that Emily will live, just like we know that Kumail and Emily will end up together. If the filmmakers have to take a few plot turns to inject some tension into the proceedings, leading us to wonder how everything will turn out all right, that’s hardly a bad thing.

All told, I had a good time with The Big Sick. It’s a fine romantic dramedy, with comedy, drama, and a romance arc that are all highly effective. There’s some great interplay between the cast members — most especially Nanjiani/Kazan and Romano/Hunter — and there’s a lot of great stuff about love, life, romance, and race. But all of this stems from how brutally, lovingly honest the filmmakers are. It’s brimming with the kind of passion and pathos that could only have come from first-hand experience. It’s perfectly clear that the filmmakers know what they’re talking about and they care a great deal.

It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s deeply sincere. While you could wait for home video without losing much, I’d still give this a strong recommendation for your earliest and most convenient viewing.

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