The Big Sick

Dir: Michael Showalter 2017. Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano. Comedy.
The Big Sick

Almost all of the better Judd Apatow joints (Cable Guy, Knocked Up, Superbad, Trainwreck, etc) have two big flaws in common: after some uproarious comedy, they end up going for the heart, therefore selling out the earlier, better raunch. They are also often ten minutes too long. In other words, Apatow’s world usually has third-act issues. The Big Sick, written by married team Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and directed by Michael Showalter - Apatow is one of eight listed producers - finally breaks this third-act curse and ends beautifully. It may become the first Apatow flick to garner a bunch of well-deserved Oscar nominations. In an era of funny but sloppy and rushed comedies, this is a perfect movie. It achieves the status of being “more than just a comedy,” like Annie Hall, for example, which is something that Apatow has been reaching for in recent years.

Co-writer Nanjiani stars as a struggling Chicago comedian who shares his first name, Kumail, and yes (SPOILERS), this is apparently a pretty-much, kinda-sorta, true story about how he and his wife Emily met and fell in love. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, always an interesting actress, and her performance is so lived-in and real, it’s easy to overlook the casual brilliance of it. The conflict is that Kumail is a Pakistan-born American, and while his charming family humors his stand-up comedy dreams, they are insistent that he eventually marry a Pakistani woman. So when he meets and falls for Emily, he has to keep it a secret from them, and later, under the pressure of being disowned, he breaks up with her. But when an infection causes her to be forced into a controlled coma, he becomes attached to her hospital bedside, along with her complicated parents, the high-strung Southerner Beth (acting hall-of-famer, Holly Hunter) and the more laid-back and passive Terry (Ray Romano, in a new career-defining role).

In a slow build, the film becomes a love story between Kumail and Emily's parents. Beth is particularly hostile to his presence at the hospital, but they gradually come to respect each other, and this is all done without the usual forced pull of heartstrings. Every emotion the audience feels, and we feel a lot, is earned. And where Kumail’s family could come off as that lovable but overly ethnically, cutesy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding family, they also feel real. Their negative traits are not glossed over, but the writers do manage to give their side of the story gracefully and with respect. Kumail grows from the experience, Terry and Beth have growth, and strangely, even while in a coma for half the film, Emily has a strong character arc too.

Nanjiani is best known as a cast member on Silicon Valley, with his face and voice all over the culty TV comedy for years. He shines here in The Big Sick, never hitting a false note in his acting or the writing. In fact, he and co-writer Gordon have just exploded to the top of the class. It will be interesting to see, after all of the kudos they are receiving, if they have another story in them as good as this one.

But maybe the most interesting subject here, on the creative growth chart, is director Showalter. As a member of the acting troop Stella, he’s been a recognizable face in comedy since Wet Hot American Summer in 2001. He took a crazy left turn a couple years ago when he directed the Sally Field movie, Hello My Name Is Doris, proving he was more than just an outrageous, fringe comedy guy. Now with The Big Sick, he’s going to be considered a major directing talent.

It's also worth noting, since we live in scary and unpredictable times of ethnic and religious hostility, that The Big Sick fearlessly laughs at Kumail’s Muslim-ness. A less brave film would want to make sure it paid respect to his religion, but the character is openly unconcerned about it. The film is not anti-Muslim, but it’s fairly un-PC without calling attention to itself. Along with Aziz Ansari’s brilliant television show The Master of None, these may be the best calling cards for Americans to understand the American Muslim’s own personal battles.

As 2017 is nearing an end, maybe The Big Sick won’t dominate the award shows like I think it will. But I bet it will dominate the test of time. This is the movie of 2017 that years - even decades - from now, people will still love. An unlikely classic is born.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 18, 2017 2:10pm
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