A film review by Craig J. Koban July 24, 2017

RANK: #17


2017, R, 119 mins.


Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail Nanjiani  /  Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner  /  Holly Hunter as Beth Gardner  /  Ray Romano as Terry Gardner  /  Adeel Akhtar as Naveed  /  Anupam Kher as Azmat  /  Kurt Braunohler as Chris  /  Bo Burnham as CJ  /  Aidy Bryant as Mary  /  Zenobia Shroff as Sharmeen  /  Vella Lovell as Khadija  /  Shenaz Treasurywala as Fatima  /  Celeste Arias as Denise

Directed by Michael Showalter  /  Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani



Someone asked me the other day what movie genre that I thought was on the verge of going on life support.  I matter of factly responded with the romcom, seeing as nearly every storytelling convention and stale and overused troupe has been literally done to death over the years to the point of ad nauseam.  

But then along comes little proverbial diamonds in the rough like THE BIG SICK to remind me that, yes, the genre can still be one of renewed vitality.  Equal parts dramatically moving and gut bustingly amusing, THE BIG SICK not only imbues the romcom with a much needed new prerogative that absconds away from routine formulas, but it also manages to be a sly and perceptive commentary piece on race relations in America. 

As for that last part, THE BIG SICK is based on the real life story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani - whom also stars and co-writes here - who began an interracial romance with future wife Emily V. Gordon...but during their courtship she developed a rare and mysterious illness that forced her into a medically induced coma for several weeks.  Nanjiani's almost impossible to believe story could have been morphed into a tastelessly sensationalistic melodrama, but the stakes in the film feel authentically personal (mostly because he's essentially playing a version of himself) and the story manages to tackle what it means for a Pakistani man to date a white woman when the respective cultural differences of both sets of parents begins to rear their ugly heads.  Rather democratically, Nanjiani's script (which he co-wrote with his wife) is remarkably fair to all of the characters on both sides of the ethnic fence, which allows for the story's cross cultural themes to achieve a level of sobering truth that's not particularly germane to this genre. 



Nanjiani stars as...well...Kumail Nanjiani, a Chicago based stand-up comic that's desperately trying to make a name for himself, often using his Pakistani heritage as material ripe for satarization.  When not working on stage he drives Uber for a living and tries to spend as much free time as he can with his staunchly Muslin parents (a pitch perfect Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who make their dinners remarkably awkward with their painfully forced attempts to arrange a girlfriend and potential future wife for him.  Kamail plays the part of a good and obedient Muslim son to his parents, but secretly he's more of an uncertain agnostic; when he goes into his parent's basement to pray to placate their religious desires he actually just plays videos games to pass the time.   

One evening changes Kumail forever when he's heckled by a cute audience member, Emily (Zoe Kazan), during one of his gigs, after which time he hooks back up with her at a local bar post-show.  The pair instantly hit it off, and after some discomfiting first few dates they become an inseparable pair.  Unfortunately, the guilt of not telling his parents that - gasp! - he's dating a non-Muslim white girl begins to weigh down heavily on Kumail, which eventually leads to a huge rift forming between the pair.  A few weeks go by without either of them talking to each another, but then Kumail receives an ominous phone call from one of Emily's friends to inform him that she's been rushed to the hospital.  Upon arriving Kumail is told by the doctor that she has an inner infection so large that she requires a medically induced coma to help alleviate her symptoms and to allow for treatment.  When Emily's parents finally arrive, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), they greet Kumail with instant suspicion.  Kumail decides to keep his chin up and stay by Emily's bedside for as long as he can, even when treated harshly by her stressed and unruly parents. 

One aspect that I admired about the very specifically titled THE BIG SICK is that it never really follows the obligatory straight line trajectory of the romcom.  Most examples of the genre spend a lion's share of their time focusing on the core relationship of the two lead actors and all of the intimate time they spend together.  THE BIG SICK is decidedly different in the sense that it's really about the emotional distance between its lovers and how Kumail learns to bond with his coma-induced girlfriend's beleaguered parents.  Kumail's on-screen and real life predicament certainly touches on universal emotions we've all dealt with (everyone seeing it will undoubtedly have had to deal with a loved one potentially dying in a hospital), but what makes his experience so wholly unique is that it compellingly delves into the inner struggles that he had with identifying with his Pakistani Muslim heritage, not to mention a set of WASP-y parents who initially form negative judgments regarding his heritage.  Very few romcoms that I can recall have focused on such a multitude of themes with the sensitivity and depth as this film. 

Take, for instance, Emily's family, whom in a lesser film would have been delegated to one-note racist caricatures for the purposes of cheap dramatic and comedic payoffs.  Yet, the screenplay affords these character an atypical level of complexity that I found refreshing.  Beth and Terry never emerge as truly hostile and vindictive people: their animosity displayed towards Kumail is, at first, born out of their mutual terrified insecurity regarding their daughter's well being.  Granted, Beth and Terry are also people that have obviously never had any Muslim friends, as early and noble minded attempts by them to reach out to and relate to Kumail's heritage are laughable failures (during one painfully hilarious bit Terry makes the mistake of asking what Kumail thought of 9/11).  However, as the narrative progresses and both the parents' and Kumail's guards are lowered they both begin to legitimately enjoy each other's company and show compassionate understanding.  The interplay between Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are the most unexpectedly potent scenes in THE BIG SICK, and Hunter and Romano specifically give such richly textured performances that carry a real palpable weight.  Both actors manage to convey anger, pathos, frustration, and ultimately understanding in their very tricky roles. 

And then there's, of course, Nanjiani himself, who displays a deadpan comic sarcasm that's positively infectious here in his very first lead role.  I think there are some genuine questions to be had as to whether or not he's an actor of serious range and is capable of becoming a leading man in future films, but he brings such soft spoken humility and low key charm to his role that works small scale wonders for the film.  His on-screen partner in Kazan also has a crucial role here, even though she's essentially out of the picture and unconscious throughout half of the film.  She has the thorny task of making Emily somehow feel relatable and endearing before she all but disappears in the narrative, thereby making it feel plausible that Kumail would want to fight for her love.  THE BIG SICK assuredly benefits from the easy going chemistry that Nanjiani and Kazan have during their few scenes together.  So many romcoms are filled with limitlessly and unattainably attractive stars, but Nanjiani and Kazan come off as credible ordinary people here trying to make a life together amidst terrible odds. 

There are a few things that hold THE BIG SICK back from attaining true transcending genre greatness, like the fact that it's about 15-20 minutes too long for its own good (the film is produced by Judd Apatow, no stranger to making more than a few endurance testing romcoms recently).  At two hours, THE BIG SICK feels a bit unnecessarily bloated.  I also had a few other nagging questions, like how come the real life Emily doesn't figure as heavily into the film as Nanjiani does with his character, which seems odd.  I also could have done with a few less scenes of Kumail's backstage stand-up comedy life with his fellow comedians, and a few less scenes involving them could have successfully trimmed off this film's fat.  However, make no mistake about it, THE BIG SICK is undeniably a crowd pleasing romcom winner with a fascinating reality based story to tell.  And the manner that it adeptly balances drama and comedy while touching on generational and cultural conflicts is kind of thanklessly on point.  More impotently, it unequivocally proves that there's still reenergized life in this well worn genre...and that Nanjiani is a multi-talented on-screen dynamo to watch out for moving forward.  

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