The Big Sick

Studio: Lionsgate

Sep 19, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Some concepts sound too unbelievable to be real, apart from when they are. That’s The Big Sick all over, a culture clash romantic comedy with a dose of life-threatening illness and a medically induced coma thrown into the mix. It also manages to walk an impressive line between sad, funny, and uplifting, keeping all the plates spinning right through to a satisfyingly earned conclusion.

Before the conclusion, we watch stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself, struggle to a few personal revelations. When we meet him, he’s leading a thinly veiled double life. He gigs at a comedy club, earns actual money as an Uber driver, and sleeps on an air mattress in his semi-permanent mess of an apartment shared with fellow comedian Chris (Kurt Braunohler).

In this life, he might meet a woman like Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) at a show, and he might start dating her, and they might begin to move towards something deeper. But he’s also the son of Pakistani parents who want him to become a lawyer, expect him to pray before dinner at the family home, and keep trying to set up an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman. Something clearly has to give.

What’s unexpected is that the initial something is Emily, who falls seriously ill and is induced into a coma. One of the most impressive things about The Big Sick is how Emily doesn’t feel short-changed as a character. She remains a presence even when she’s not present, and when she is, she’s a smart, sparky and conflicted character.

It helps that Nanjiani is only the co-writer of this story, because it’s not only his story. It’s also that of Emily V. Gordon, the other half of the real-life love story. She writes with Nanjiani, rounding out the relationship to make it more than a confused man sees the light narrative. There is some of that, but it feels like he genuinely confronts his conflictions, rather than treading water until the woman comes to him anyway.

The film also benefits from strong acting with one exception. Kazan is very good as Emily, playing well off Nanjiani to give an edge to their romance. They like each other, and riff naturally, but there’s awkwardness and hostility. A lesser film would have rounded off the corners, or played up to them. The Big Sick does neither, leaving in moments of tension without diminishing a steady stream of very funny jokes. This comes on top of an impressive supporting cast, particularly Nanjiani’s parents Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) and Azmat (Anupam Kher), and Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). The only real slip comes from Nanjiani, who in some of the dramatic moments looks very much the comedian trying to be an actor.

When everything else manages to click into place, it doesn’t matter too much though. Who’d have thought comas and the prospect of being cast out of your family forever could be so funny, or so romantic? 

Author rating: 8/10

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