The Big Sick.

The Big Sick was one of the few bright spots in an ugly summer for the movies, racking up over $40 million in a limited release to lead all indie films from 2017, 2016, or 2015. The romantic comedy is a rarity in its genre, a genuinely funny film with a big heart that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and is boosted by two strong supporting performances by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Oh, and one of the two romantic leads spends about half of the film in a medically-induced coma. (I know, it’s serious.) Amazon purchased The Big Sick in the spring but hasn’t put it on Prime (yet), so you can rent it from the usual sites in the meantime, including amazon and iTunes.

The script draws from the true story of Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), incorporating her real-life illness and the cultural conflict Kumail faced as the secular son of religious, traditional Pakistani parents in Chicago. The two strike up an unlikely relationship that falls apart when Emily finds out that Kumail hasn’t told his parents, who expect him to make an arranged marriage to a girl of Pakistani descent, that he’s dating a white woman. Shortly after their breakup, however, Emily ends up in the hospital with what appears to be a serious infection, and one of her friends calls Kumail – perhaps unaware how things ended between them – to ask him to go be with her in the ER until her parents get into town. In the interim, the doctors put Emily into a coma, so that when her folks, played by Hunter and Romano, arrive, Kumail meets them for the first time under strained cirumstances, and since they know what he did, they’re not especially open to his presence. Over the remainder of the film, of course, they grow fond of each other, pushed along by outside events, while Kumail has to confront his inner conflict between fealty to his parents and his desire for an independent, non-Muslim life in the U.S.

While Nanjiani is affable and charming throughout the film, Hunter and Romano – especially Hunter – carry this movie beyond regular meet-cute territory, with performances that manage to feel real without crossing into pure sentiment. Hunter, playing Beth, pulses with a sort of quiet rage that spills out in the most unlikely place, where she defends Nanjiani from a bigoted heckler, signaling (obviously) a turning point in her view of her daughter’s ex and making clear that his ethnicity or background are just not relevant to her. The strained relationship Beth and Terry (Romano) have also gets a little more explanation as the story progresses, but this is primarily about how Kumail and Emily’s parents formed a bond while Emily was under, and Kumail’s own realization that he’d rather defy his family and face the consequences than walk away from Emily forever.

There are bits of The Big Sick that don’t work as well, that feel a bit more like, if not exactly cheap laughs, then slightly less expensive ones. I don’t know how true to life the scenes of Kumail with his family are, but we’ve certainly seen these assimilation stories before, right down to the mom blithely pretending she’s not trying to arrange a marriage for her son while she’s obviously trying to arrange a marriage for her son. His parents come off as very one-note in the film, and in an unconvincing way – the importance of tradition or religion for them is just assumed, never shown, and their reaction when he reveals that he’s dating a white girl and has no intention of accepting an arranged marriage feels out of proportion to what we’ve seen before then.

I also didn’t feel like Kazan, who of course isn’t in the movie as much as Nanjiani, brought a ton of personality to Emily’s character; she’s little, and has a cute smile, but there’s little depth to her personality on screen and Kazan’s youthful appearance ends up working against the character by making her seem insubstantial. The story is more about Kumail and Emily’s parents than it is about Emily, and there’s enough chemistry between the two leads that the romance itself is credible, but I thought Kazan was less than ideal for the role.

This feels like perfect fodder for The Golden Globes, with that show’s separate category for comedies, and could end up with nominations for best comedy, maybe best actor in a comedy (Nanjiani), and perhaps a supporting nod for Hunter (although the Globes don’t distinguish between supporting roles in dramas or comedies). It seems most likely to me to end up a film that while generally unrecognized by industry awards makes a slew of critics’ year-end top ten lists.

Comments

  1. Having listened to Kumail and Emily with Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist podcast, Zoe Kazan was just completely unconvincing. She had the personality of a wet dishrag, which is not at all how the real Emily has come across in any interview I’ve seen or heard.

  2. For me, ironically, kumail was just too old for the part. It impacted their chemistry. I liked her, though agree she isn’t a great actor (yet?).

  3. “His parents come off as very one-note in the film, and in an unconvincing way – the importance of tradition or religion for them is just assumed, never shown, and their reaction when he reveals that he’s dating a white girl and has no intention of accepting an arranged marriage feels out of proportion to what we’ve seen before then.”

    While I am not of Pakistani decent, I am of Korean decent and the parental reaction is not out of proportion to what we’ve seen before in the movie at all based on my experiences and their parents rang very true to me instead of one-notish. I think this reaction stems from an unfamiliarity with non-Euro-American families and in talking with other Asian friends (which again isn’t quite the same as the movie), the parental portrayal seemed very realized and hardly one-noted.

    • I can see what Keith is saying in regards to the mother, but I think the father (and brother) were played quite well.

      The father, who was played by quite a legendary Bollywood actor (I believe Kumail has said his Dad wanted to be played by him?), did well in showing that while he understood Kumail’s intentions and feelings, that it was just not something that he and the mother could live with – which is absolutely true in many 1st gen immigrant families.

    • Having come from an asian family as well, Kumail’s parents’ views on religion/custom seemed pretty familiar to me, emphasized in a way that showed it was very important, even if the only reason it was very important was the fact that it’s always been very important. It’s not a particularly pious brand of religious devotion, more a cultural norm that’s just accepted and held onto unflinchingly.

  4. A couple of other random comments.

    Zoe Kazan – I thought she was fine and had the requisite chemistry with Kumail. I actually thought her best part was a scene that didn’t require any physical acting – her voice messages on Kumanil’s phone. Her attempts to make Pakistani food, getting crapped on by a bird, and her “by-eeeee” were great.

    Kumail’s parents – The part where they visit him in his apartment and storm out probably hits home for a lot of Asian Americans. And then where they drive up right before he leaves for NYC with the father handing him his favorite Pakistani dish – with extra potatoes – and his mom waiting in the car is heart breaking. His attempt to work his way back in the family after telling them that he’s not leaving is wonderful as well. The hand written cards, his family’s torn WTF look, and the gravity of the situation, it’s all amazing.

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