Mark Reviews Movies

The Big Sick


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Showalter

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Kurt Braunohler, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Vella Lovell

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 6/23/17 (limited); 6/30/17 (wider); 7/14/17 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 29, 2017

There are multiple stories that The Big Sick juggles. It's the story of an immigrant, trying to decide how to live the American life that he has known for most of his own life, while trying to balance the wishes of his family members, who are still set in the ways of their previous home country. It's about a stand-up comedian chasing a dream that seems so close but is still out of reach. It's about a guy trying to get in the good graces of the parents of the woman he's dating—well, kind of dating. Above all, it's a sweet romance about two characters, whom we really like and who keep telling each other that they're not really ready for a relationship, even as their mutual attraction and admiration for the other keep drawing them closer.

There's a hook here, although it seems a bit uncouth to call it a hook. First, here's the premise: The woman becomes gravely ill and is put into a medically-induced coma. The reason it seems impolite to call it a hook—beyond the severity of the setup—is that the story is based on a true one, namely the relationship between its screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. One might believe a story such as this one would take a turn for the sappy or melodramatic, but as you obviously have gathered by now, the story has a happy ending. Otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about the work of a pair of married screenwriters, adapting the tale of their courtship for a movie (There's more to their story after this, so bring on a sequel).

Even so, the temptation to take advantage of this story's melodramatic potential must have been present during the course of writing it. It's what an audience would expect from a film about a situation as grim as a loved one's life-or-death struggle with a mysterious illness.

To their credit, Nanjiani and Gordon haven't taken the obvious route, which makes sense, considering, as detailed here, the circumstances of their relationship. They've written a comedy that, yes, does recognize the seriousness of the situation but also focuses on the uncomfortable, awkward, and difficult nature of it, too.

Nanjiani plays a version of himself named, obviously, Kumail. He's a struggling stand-up comedian in Chicago whose day (and night, when he doesn't have a gig) job is working for an online taxi service. He immigrated to the United States from Pakistan as a child, and while he's trying to achieve his dreams, his family, especially his mother (played by Zenobia Shroff), expects him to have a more traditional life. This means law school (He refuses), being a devout Muslim (When visiting his family, he goes to the basement to "pray" but watches videos and plays games on his phone instead), and marry a Pakistani woman whom his family has helped to choose.

After a show, Kumail strikes up a conversation with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a whip-smart grad student in psychology who hooted during his act (He explains that heckling is technically any interruption), and brings her back to his apartment. They agree that they won't see each other again, and then they agree to the same thing over and over again until they've been dating for five months.

The complication that we expect to play out is how Kumail has been lying to her about his family's plans for his arranged marriage and to his family about her. Instead, she takes ill with what seems to be the flu. It's actually an infection in her lung, and it's spreading. The need to stabilize her in a medically-induced coma is so vital that a doctor convinces Kumail to sign off on it, pretending to be Emily's husband.

There's a lot of groundwork that the film has laid out already. Most importantly, perhaps, is Kazan's performance up until this point, since her character is unconscious for about of the story. She's warm and charming, while being simultaneously smart enough to see through Kumail's odd courtship rituals (He wants her to watch one of his favorite movies with him and then proceeds to watch her watching it) and open enough to find them endearing.

For most of it, though, the heart of the film becomes Kumail's relationship with Emily's parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), who have come from North Carolina to be with their daughter. There's tension, of course, because Emily talks to her parents about everything—including the fact that she and Kumail have broken up on account of his deception about and with his family. Kumail decides that he will stay with them at the hospital, whether they like it or not, and out of necessity, a bond between the stranger and the parents gradually forms.

This growing appreciation and admiration is as sweet as the romance, although in an entirely different way, obviously. What's intriguing is the differing but complementary ways in which they learn about each other. The parents accept Kumail through his actions, which gives them the security of opening up to him about their problems and their fears. Just as with the story of Emily's illness, there's nothing overtly sentimental about this relationship. It's a matter of mutual respect developing between them, and it's helped immensely by Romano and Hunter's respective performances, in which both characters have defensive shells (Romano plays it cool and distant, while Hunter's harshness hides an abundance of warmth and humor) that steadily collapse.

Nanjiani is also very good here in a performance that requires plenty of internal conflict without sacrificing the actor's sense of humor. That can be said of the entirety of The Big Sick, which treats its characters and its subject seriously enough to know that they need to laugh, too.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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