"The Big Sick does a terrific job at balancing its breezy but often uproariously funny comedy with moments of heartfelt drama."
by Steve Pulaski
If you're lucky, once a year, a comedy comes out long after you've sat through about two or three dour ones and almost makes those previous dour affairs worth it. Almost.
Regardless, The Big Sick is an unbelievable treat of a movie. A tremendously funny picture bolstered by gifted performances from a variety of actors from a variety of generations, the film is a semi-autobiographical account of comedian Kumail Nanjiani's relationship with his wife Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani plays himself, whereas Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) takes the role of Emily, and the two meet when Emily "heckles" Kumail as he performs one of dozens of stand-up shows at the same venue with his fellow comedian friends (Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant).
Kumail lives in Chicago, making a living performing and driving for Uber, while also grappling with his traditional Pakistani-Muslim family that moved to the United States over a decade ago. Despite moving, his parents still force Kumail to abide by the customs of their home country and religion, such as engaging in the practice of prolific, private prayer (during which Kumail simply sets a five-minute countdown on his phone and proceeds to watch videos) and having an arranged marriage. It seems with each dinner Kumail has at home, his mother sets up a meeting with a young, single Pakistani woman with hopes her son will either fall in love or be content enough to pursue a friendship that will lead to marriage.
When Kumail meets Emily, he neglects to inform her of that particularly important piece of information, and despite Emily's wishes of "never seeing each other again" after the two sleep together on the first date, the two always seem to wind up drinking, cuddling, or watching movies together. Shortly after Emily breaks up with Kumail upon discovering his cigar box full of photos and notes about eligible bachelorettes, she falls gravely ill and Kumail is forced to sign off to put her in a medically induced coma.
What unfolds is a sweet, tender film that deals with sickness, the passage of time, the awkwardness, and everything surrounding the unfortunate circumstances of Emily's confusing illness. Kumail tries to bond with her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), but the two are on odd terms being that they know the reasons behind their breakup. But Kumail, as he's trying to kickstart his own comedy career by impressing talent managers whilst on-stage, makes it a priority to go back to the hospital every single day, not only to see Emily, but to bond with her parents.
Nanjiani is as charismatic of a performer as any we've since this year. He has a sweet smile and doe-eyes that make even his character's moments of frustration carry a light-hearted aura. Zoe Kazan is also quite lovely, and what's remarkable is how Nanjiani and Gordon (who both wrote the screenplay - there's a fun, cathartic marital exercise) keep Emily in the picture at all times even when she's unconscious. The couple never make her feel invisible nor write her out of her own film, keeping her character alive, so to speak, by making sure she's still part of the forefront.
Emily's parents are a riot too. Consider Holly Hunter's scene-stealing moment when she engages and eventually fights a heckler at one of Kumail's shows after he demands he "go back to ISIS." Hunter has such a feisty power inside of her this entire film, one that comes to life in scenes like that, but also appropriately dials back during calmer moments, such as when her and Kumail unearth images of Emily in high school.
Meanwhile, Ray Romano might be the most surprising actor of the bunch. Not one to take on a slew of projects since the conclusion of his famous sitcom, Romano's comic timing is impeccable, and his character's stiffness and notable lack of comfort in scenes echoes a lighter version of Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Him and Nanjiani might indeed be the most unexpected comic pairing of the year that works and works in such a spirited manner.
The Big Sick does a terrific job at balancing its breezy but often uproariously funny comedy with moments of heartfelt drama. Both aspects of Nanjiani's incredible story of love and romance never get in the way of the functionality of one or the other. The comedy never undercuts the drama in the form of an ill-timed penis joke, and the film is not written in the way that needs to end every scene with a quip or a zinger. In fact, a handful of scenes in the film end on an awkward note, almost like we cut away too quickly or one of the actors forgot their lines. Moments aren't as climactic as we've grown accustomed to nor does a big saving grace in the form of a savior character or a miracle ever elbow their way on-screen. The Big Sick is bravely committed to showing the real, ugly side of things in a way that feels naturalistic and deeply humanist, as well.
I frequently get asked, usually after recommending a new movie to someone, "is it worth seeing on the big-screen?" Is it worth not only the trip but the thrill and gusto of watching it on a screen that is the size of a house? The Big Sick, as you can probably assume, doesn't have the visual thrills or the special effects magic of films you'd typically urge people to see in a theater. However, there's a certain pleasure of seeing a very funny, timely comedy in the theater, where the jokes seem bigger, the laughs are louder, and the ambience is as audible as the noise emulating from the speakers.
I recommend The Big Sick because it's an absolutely wonderful film and it's one you owe it to yourself to see in theaters. Dare to give money to something original, compelling, and daring to exist in an industry and during a time currently monopolized by movies with seven-times the budget of this low-key charmer.
Steve's Grade: A-