Rich in emotional honesty and equal parts funny/moving, The Big Sick successfully infuses the traditional rom-com formula with a modern sensibility.
Kumail Nanjiani (playing a semi-fictionalized version of himself) is a Pakistani-American currently making his living as an Uber driver in modern Chicago by day, a wannabe professional standup comedian at night. Despite his family’s best efforts to get Kumail to agree to an arranged marriage to a Pakistani-American woman, Kumail instead winds up falling for Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan), a white American grad student. Kumail thus attempts to keep things simple by just not telling his parents about Emily – in the process inadvertently making things more complicated for the couple, in spite of their obvious strong feelings for one another.
However, everything changes when Emily is struck by a mysterious illness that leaves her hospitalized, forcing Kumail to try and handle the crisis with Emily’s parents – Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) – despite having just met both of them. As the situation with Emily becomes more and more serious, Kumail is thus forced to make some hard decisions about not only what he wants from his life but, just as importantly, who he wants to actively continue to be a part of his life.
Directed by Michael Showalter (the co-creator of the Wet Hot American Summer franchise), The Big Sick was inspired by comedian/actor Kumail Nanjiani’s real-life courtship with his wife, Emily Gordon (who co-wrote the film with Nanjiani). Nanjiani himself is a self-professed fan of the romantic comedy genre – with The Big Sick representing his and his collaborators’ own attempt to wholeheartedly embrace the tried-and-true elements of the genre, yet at the same put a fresher and more emotionally authentic spin on those same tropes. Fortunately, this is one movie that lives up to the positive buzz that it has generated from its tour of the film festival circuit. Rich in emotional honesty and equal parts funny/moving, The Big Sick successfully infuses the traditional rom-com formula with a modern sensibility.
Similar to how TV shows like HBO’s Girls and Netflix’s Master of None meld autobiographical story elements with different sub-genres of indie/arthouse filmmaking, The Big Sick examines Nanjiani’s experiences as a Pakistani-American and relationship with the real Emily Gordon through the lens of the archetypical rom-com. As such, the elements most strongly associated with the genre (quirky supporting characters, a parade of obstacles preventing the protagonists from becoming a proper couple, and so forth) are all present and accounted for here. It’s the execution that makes all the difference in The Big Sick, ranging from the thoughtful characterization of the background players to the movie’s avoidance of excessive plot conveniences or overly-manipulative narrative contrivances. The naturalism of the dialogue and situations presented here can no doubt be partly attributed to the movie having some basis in real-life events, but The Big Sick would succeed wholly on its own terms even it were purely fictional.
In terms of craftsmanship, The Big Sick is perfectly solid, if not quite on the same level as its acting and screenwriting. Showalter and his director of photography Brian Burgoyne (who previously collaborated with the writer/director on Hello, My Name Is Doris) tend to avoid drawing attention to the camerawork and keep the focus on the cast’s performances – be it by bouncing between closeups during intimate conversations or filming exchanges in extended takes. In turn, the movie does not establish much of a sense of time and place, despite the different settings and central backdrop of Chicago being otherwise handsomely captured for the big screen. The Big Sick is certainly as visually-pleasing as the average studio comedy release nowadays (more so, as it were), but it ultimately doesn’t set as high a bar for itself to clear on a technical level (including, how it constructs its story through editing), compared to other aspects of the film.
As indicated before, it’s both the screenwriting and the performances of the cast that further elevate The Big Sick into being something special. Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan (as the onscreen Emily Gordon) handle their comedic and dramatic moments in the film with equal aplomb here, as they do the many scenes that carefully blend those two tones. When combined with the charismatic duo’s strong onscreen chemistry, it becomes easy to believe that their characters would fall in love with one another under these circumstances. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are operating on the same level with their respective performances as Emily’s parents, allowing their interactions with Nanjiani in particular to resonate – whether their scenes together involve awkward meet-the-parents culture clash humor or require them to be as emotionally-vulnerable as the movie’s leads (including, as part of a subplot about their own relationship issues).
Nanjiani’s onscreen family members are not afforded as much screen-time as Emily’s parents, but The Big Sick provides enough onscreen development time to prevent Nanjiani’s parents and siblings from descending into stereotype and/or caricature. Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) is thus perfectly likable and relatable in the role of Kumail’s brother Naveed, allowing him to serve as a nice foil to Kumail when it comes to their approaches to their shared cultural/ethnic heritage. Anupam Kher (Sense8) and Zenobia Shroff (Little Zizou) as Kumail’s father and mother, Azmat and Sharmeen, likewise come off as fully-rounded individuals and sincere in their efforts to connect with their son, despite their differing beliefs and outlook in general. This, in turn, ensures that the scenes between Nanjiani and his (movie) family are as funny and touching as those that he shares with the Gordons.
For these reasons, The Big Sick succeeds as both a self-reflective work of art for Nanjiani (as well as the real Emily Gordon) and a terrific romantic comedy – demonstrating that the genre is capable of adapting to the changes in the moviemaking climate since its heyday back in the 1990s and 2000s especially (when many of the films that directly influenced Nanjiani and Gordon were released). The Big Sick is also the rare indie summer movie offering that can be recommended to both mainstream audiences and those who tend to prefer the arthouse during the hottest time of the year. Chances are good that both those crowds will fall in love with this one.
The Big Sick is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 124 minutes long and is Rated R for language including some sexual references.
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