The Big Sick
dir. Michael Showalter
scr. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon
Romantic comedy is, contrary to appearances, very difficult.
Sure, you can make an easy one, and there are thousands of those, as cardboard and bland as the generic westerns or gangster pictures that once crowded theater screens. That’s what genre is when done indifferently. It’s a template you follow to make something that looks like something else so people who like that general thing will go, “Yeah, that’s familiar.” It’s Pavlovian. It works for a reason. It’s a model for a reason.
And there are plenty of comedians who make the jump to feature films in material they write that’s sort of generally about their experiences, and some of it’s good and some of it’s bad and most of it is relentlessly self-focused, and that’s fine. It’s basically a calling card, a jumping-off. It’s so common at this point that it almost feels like the modern equivalent of the HBO half-hour in the late ‘80s. “You know you’ve made it when…”
The Big Sick stands out, though, in every way, and it is impressively smart and sweet in equal measure. It’s a fairly gentle film, which I appreciate. So much of our pop culture is abrasive these days, and there’s certainly plenty of room for that in this story if that’s the direction they took with their storytelling. But, as seems fitting for a love story, this is a story in which the transformative power of love is front and center.
Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling comedian whose traditional Pakistani parents are trying to find him an arranged marriage. Great set-up for a comedy right there, and that’s certainly one that would be new to a section of the mainstream audience. Instead, the film deals with what happens when Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who Kumail immediately starts falling for. Okay, that’s plenty, right? Nope. Things get complicated for Kumail and Emily and, not long after they break up, she has to be rushed to the hospital where she is put into a medically-induced coma. This brings Kumail into direct contact with her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are justifiably confused about why their daughter’s ex-boyfriend is at the hospital. See what I mean? Lots of complications on top of complications.
Oh, and it’s true. Did I mention that? I first met Kumail and Emily several years ago when I knew them primarily from their podcast, The Indoor Kids. We ended up playing XBox games together online from time to time because of mutual friends, and it was always nice to run into them around LA at comedy shows or film nerd events. They’ve always struck me as a genuinely strong couple, complementary to one another, with a very grounded attitude about things, and watching this movie was fascinating because of the way it recontextualized these two very real people I know. Zoe Kazan is a terrific choice to play the real Emily Gordon, who is just breathtakingly positive about things, and Kumail does the best work of his career bringing his story to life. He’s been consistently good on Silicon Valley, and he can make even a small appearance in something like Central Intelligence into a big enough laugh that my boys were quoting him weeks after they saw it. We get a chance to see behind the sense of humor here, though, and that’s quietly amazing for American mainstream movies in general. I don’t look at filmmaking as a case of quotas, but I am always thrilled to have a voice in the mix that wasn’t previously represented. If movies are indeed empathy machines, designed to help us try on one another’s skins, then movies like The Big Sick are the very best version of that.
Like Aziz Ansari’s terrific Master of None, The Big Sick is careful not to make the traditions of Kumail’s immigrant parents into a joke or a bad thing. Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) make their parental concern into something warm and touching. They want their son to be happy, and they want him to be connected to tradition, and there’s not a single thing they do in the movie that they don’t do from love. In fact, the most surprising thing here is how well-written the parents are on both sides. There’s nothing selfish about the way the script by Nanjiani and Gordon portrays their parents. I love Terry and Beth. Ray Romano was stiff his first few years on Everybody Loves Raymond, but he has matured into a terrific actor. He’s heartbreaking to me here, so strong and yet so vulnerable. I’m not shocked that Holly Hunter is awesome. I’m just shocked that we get so few opportunities to remember that Holly Hunter is awesome.
The Big Sick does a nice job of realistically portraying the world of stand-up comedy, never letting that become the focus of things. Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and many others show up to lend some strong comic support, but the film keeps its focus tight, really letting us go through this with them. This feels like a movie that is of the moment, a look at what America can be at its best, a collision of cultures where the result is harmony instead of harm.