Movie Review: The Big Sick

From the writer of off-beat but lovable rom-coms They Came Together and Hello, My Name Is Doris, and producer Judd Apatow, comes one of the most undeniably subversive yet heartwarming comedies of the year in The Big Sick. Managing to follow the fundamental beats of the overplayed romantic comedy subgenre, while at the same time tossing in a motley cast of characters that do their best to critique it, The Big Sick employed sharp satire and impassioned performances to deliver an often-bumbling yet daringly profound set piece of love in the 21st century.


As struggling stand-up comedian Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) stumbles his way through the trials and tribulations of becoming the next big thing in Chicago, one night on stage leads him to cross paths with graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan). Though quickly dismissing each other after one night together, Kumail and Emily eventually begin dating, keeping their relationship a secret from their families. With Kumail fearing his traditional Pakistani Muslim parents won't approve of Emily, he maintains his unique relationship with his parents, their traditions of arranged marriage taking their toll on Kumail. After the couple's relationship takes a bad turn, things only get worse from there, as Emily suddenly falls ill and is forced into a medically-induced coma. Forcing Kumail not only to confront Emily's parents (Holly Hunter, Ray Ramano), but his own feelings on love, the fate of Emily lies in the balance as the messy world of love and truth intersect at the most unpredictable of places.

Drumming up an intriguing gamble for the often-cliche and mundane subgenre of the romantic comedy -- a staple of Hollywood filmmaking that's become only more crude and self-indulgent as the 21st century beats on -- director Michael Showalter's unique tale in The Big Sick managed to pitch audiences an odd mix of melancholy tropes we've all seen before, and semi-biographical self-awareness with a distinct taste for satire. Finding its story in the real-life couple of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, Showalter (along with both Nanjiani and Gordon as writers) delved into a premise that while for the most part followed the similar beats of an average rom-com -- girl-meets-guy, they fall in love, cue dreamy, romantic montage -- at the same time, felt undeniably authentic. Even if it at times flows into tropes fans of the genre have come to know, The Big Sick maintained a fascinating essence of reality and humanity in its storytelling, one that elevated its characters to become believable personas of the contemporary world.


That theme, of course, was sustained primary through the film's phenomenal performances. Beginning with the film's central protagonist, comedian Kumail Nanjiani (of Silicon Valley fame) contorted himself into such a convincing portrayal of his real self, that you never really cared when his character drifted too often towards the melodramatic. Even in moments when his acting might dive a little deeper than he might be used to, Nanjiani's own beliefs and feelings on the world worked profoundly in favor of crafting his sensitive, bumbling comedian in love. Conjuring up the cynicism of Louie C.K. in Louie and the off-beat satire of Aziz Ansari in his masterwork Master of None, Nanjiani managed to command the screen with gut-busting appeal.

The gut-busting didn't stop there, however, as the rest of the cast shined as well. With the film adopting an unusual, but not unheard-of plot that sent its characters riding the brim of depression and uncertainty, the entire cast kept the film afloat, even in the eyes of becoming something it didn't want to be. While the first hour of the film presented us with the charming and likable couple in Kumail and Zoe Kazan's delightful Emily, the last hour gave us a handful of the film's most satisfying performances. While Kumail's traditionalist parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) put down some hilarious roadblocks in Kumail's journey towards navigating love, it was Emily's parents in Ray Ramano and Holly Hunter that truly stole the show. While their presence in Kumail's life might become just as incendiary as his own parents', Hunter and Ramano gave off some fantastic performances as they struggled to understand Kumail's role in Emily's dire situation.


Even as The Big Sick tackled a daring balance between a sweet love affair and a partially-depressing drama on the backdrop of modern-day Chicago, the film was far from perfect. Yes, while it did work to subvert the romantic comedy genre by tossing in a viable, medically-infused subplot, the film did gamble with its runtime and pacing. While the film began with a running stride as it kicked off its half-love montage, half-social commentary on cross-cultural relationships, when the plot meandered its way into the corner where Emily gets sick, it slowed down to a near crawl. Pausing briefly for an awkward first encounter between Kumail and Emily's parents (which brought not only some tense chemistry, but also a tongue-in-cheek quip about 9/11 and Kumail's obvious ethnicity), the last hour of the film stumbled through a number of hesitant transitions from the first hour's light-hearted fun. Still, even as the film took some punches by pausing the hilarity for heartbreak, the enigmatic performances of its cast managed to keep the film from dragging itself into the darkness.

Overall, while it might suffer from off-beat pacing and gamble with the risk of becoming too much like other rom-coms of the decade, The Big Sick was a satirical drama made by and for the lovelorn people of our often-controversial realm of contemporary society. With a film that knows how to mix its political satire with its cutesy boy-meets-girl premise, and has a dynamically human cast to back it up, The Big Sick should make you laugh, cry, smile, and especially, savor the people you choose to love.

I gave The Big Sick a 7 out of 10 because even when it slows down to let us shed a tear, the film shines with an effective cast, a unique and engaging premise, and phenomenal heart that bleeds into every joke it tosses our way.                  

     

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