by Philip Price
I love movies about stand-up comedians. There is something to the art form that I, personally, don’t believe I’d ever be able to successfully master and that is the factor of succeeding in such a fashion where it outwardly seems like one is struggling without struggling at all. Stand-up is very much an art that requires one to put their whole selves on the line and bank on the fact their personality is endearing enough for most of the audience to find appealing and latch onto. To do this one must express a large amount of humility while simultaneously sparking a small amount of jealousy-jealousy in the way that the audience wishes they could channel and overcome their own life’s obstacles in the same way a given comedian seems to be doing by discussing them in front of a crowded room. One can’t succeed at the job too effortlessly or they lack credibility yet if the routine doesn’t come with a certain amount of effortlessness they seemingly lack the natural “it’ factor it takes to thrive; to stand out among a sea of other would-be storytellers. It’s a fine line one must walk to be able to pull off a certain kind of aura and it no doubt comes down to knowing one’s self better than others might ever care to get to know themselves i.e. exposing or opening one’s self up to their own shortcomings, faults, disadvantages-whatever it may be that people believe takes them down a few pegs from the pedestal they constantly hope to achieve as a person. By all accounts, Kumail Nanjiani is a fine stand-up comedian though I’d be lying if I said I’d listened to any of his sets prior to seeing his feature writing debut in “The Big Sick” (and no, I haven’t seen “Silicon Valley” either). This is brought up for the reason that those strengths Nanjiani plays toward as a stand-up have clearly crossed over to his screenwriting process as not only have he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, crafted a heartfelt and rather eye-opening story around cultural differences in relationships, but they have done so by telling their story and to do this in an effective manner one certainly has to know themselves and be honest about themselves with themselves if that story is truly going to resonate. “The Big Sick” accomplishes as much rather well and, not coincidentally, does so with just the right amount of effortlessness to be both endearing to audiences in its quest and enviable to fellow artists in its craft.
In “The Big Sick,” Nanjiani plays a stand-up comedian of Pakistani descent so not too much of a stretch for the actor/comic, but this is still very much a concrete representation of a very formative part of his life and deals in a subject matter that is obviously very near and dear to his heart, so you better believe he brings the best he can to the screen. As was true in Nanjiani's life not too long ago this version of Kumail is a struggling stand-up who hopes to make it to the big time, but for now is working as an Uber driver to keep the lights on. He has a circle of comic friends that include the likes of CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant), and roommate Chris (Kurt Braunohler). It is on a night down at the local comedy club where the four friends along with other comics do five or so minute sets that Kumail is heckled by an innocent enough looking white girl after he calls out for his fellow Pakistani's in the house. This, of course, turns out to be a rather critical person in Kumail's story as it is none other than Emily (Zoe Kazan), a college student studying to be a therapist who is out for a night with some friends. Kumail is inherently drawn toward Emily and the conversation starts out cute enough with Kumail trying a few of his own parlor tricks that Emily sees right through. The two hook-up, but swear that’s all it is and come to the mutual decision they will probably never see one another again. Of course, this doesn’t come to pass and before we know it “The Big Sick” is offering us a tale of a whirlwind romance through the guise of a romantic comedy that is truncated into a 40-minute runtime. It is at the 40-minute mark that the film begins to alter its DNA – taking on a more serious, more dramatic role as Emily falls ill with what is known as adult-onset Still's disease (AOSD) or an extremely rare form of arthritis that can shut down major organs when left untreated. To try and remedy the situation the doctors at a Chicago hospital place Emily in a medically induced coma leaving Kumail, who has yet to meet his girlfriend’s suburban parents, to navigate the waters of their relationship and what might come to be with those parents. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who aren’t overly excited to see Kumail given his and their daughter’s recent turmoil having to deal with the fact Kumail had not yet informed his traditional Pakistani family he was dating outside their religion and had been evading meeting Emily’s parents due to a fear of getting so involved that undesirable decisions would have to be made.
It is this crossroads in life that makes “The Big Sick” so unique in its approach to storytelling and interesting in terms of character dynamics and other, larger themes. For all accounts and purposes the writing of this film by Nanjiani and his now-wife, the real-life Emily (spoiler alert), was a therapeutic process in and of itself for the couple who were, ten years on, able to think out loud and evaluate everything they had to in fact overcome to wind up together; the tangible things that had to be dealt with in this life for a feeling-a hunch, that there was something worth pursuing between the two of them. It has always surprised me by how much we, as humans, can let our emotions and potential feelings determine such large parts of our being-aspects that have sometimes been determined without our consent even. It takes a lot of courage to place a bet on feelings that may or may not turn out to be a love of the moment rather than the girl, but in taking this step towards evaluating their own love story we see how Nanjiani and his character of Kumail come to decide it is most the girl they are in love with over the course of her being in a coma. It is in this navigation that “The Big Sick” and its director Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) find their secret weapon and that is in the film’s ability to transition back and forth so effortlessly (there’s that word again) between the heavier dramatic beats that include Emily getting sick, being admitted to the hospital, and Kumail being asked by the doctor to sign a consent form so that they may put her under the medically induced coma to the more comedic ones such as Holly Hunter’s Beth manically dealing with her daughter’s illness by lashing out at a heckler at one of Kumail’s shows. All of this only for the movie to then revert to Kumail having to deal with his own parents and them kicking him out of their family because of his refusal to abide by Muslim tradition and marry a Muslim/Pakistani woman. The movie does this many times, but we never feel the tonal shifts in ways that are disruptive. Never is it jarring to go from a moment where Romano’s character is smiling and reflecting just seeing his daughter up and walking around again to that of him making a joke about her calling him if she “feels a coma coming on.” It is yet another facet of the film that is a technically difficult thing to pull off when you’re manufacturing every moment and emotion being projected on screen, but that the movie itself pulls off without so much as a hiccup. Without feeling as if it should try. It would be one thing if the film felt like two separate entities as it very much is given it charts Kumail and Emily’s relationship as well as Kumail and Emily’s parents relationship, but the script eases the audience from one scenario to the next with a structure that keeps it consistently funny enough that Showalter knows where to keep his tone and knows how to use that consistency to really drive the heavy moments home with the only downfall being that, with so much going on, it gets to feel a little more labored than it should in the last 15 to 20 minutes.
In that “The Big Sick” becomes this movie about Kumail hanging out with his girlfriend’s parents and his discovering of his love for Emily while coming to terms with what he must do regarding confronting his own parents it is the large middle chunk of the movie that features Nanjiani, Romano, and Hunter playing off one another that becomes the most memorable. For starters, Hunter is cool as hell and there’s nothing anyone can do about it making it impossible to resist her charm despite the fact she is initially opposed to having anything to do with Kumail because of that recent turmoil. Hunter is a woman and a personality so strong and so singular to herself that she automatically becomes one of those people you want to impress and you want to like you or, in this situation, that we want Kumail to overcome the obstacle of and earn her seal of approval. Hunter’s Beth is a spitfire for lack of a better word and she rightfully puts nothing in front of the well-being of her daughter. Romano is not necessarily the more emotional parent, but he is the one that is easier to read and because of this is more of a push-over than that of his counterpart. It is Terry who first invites Kumail to come eat with him and Beth at the hospital cafeteria, and it is Terry who suggests they go to one of Kumail’s shows the night before Emily’s surgery so that he might be distracted by something to take his mind off the stress of his daughter being in a coma. As Terry, Romano portrays more than just the lovable dad figure who is willing to give whatever his girl happens to love a chance because he believes there must be a reason his daughter adores something or someone, but he is a layered human being with as many faults as he has merits. “The Big Sick” is a movie that very easily could have gotten itself into the weeds of who is right and who is wrong and why so and so is justified in feeling this way, but it never makes the movie about an “us versus them” type dilemma. Rather, Kumail’s parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) are portrayed as human beings entrenched in their heritage and who only want for their son what they have built. They are understanding as far as his ambitions despite their urging of him to be a doctor or lawyer, but they hold out for Kumail to marry a nice Muslim girl going so far as to set-up blind dates with potential candidates every time Kumail comes over for family dinner. Kumail’s arguments are made and his struggle realized, but his parents are never vilified despite the fact their actions tend to be rather radical. It is a movie about acceptance and love, about generational differences and cultural clashes that is able to preach about as much without outwardly stating as much while still leaving viewers with all the warm, fuzzy feelings they might expect from a solid rom-com.
The combination of these distinct personalities along with Nanjiani’s leading turn that sees him utilize his keen sense of humor to deflect the impossibly personal and delicate situation he encounters make this movie the diamond in the rough it no doubt felt like it was coming out of Sundance back in January. With the hype that has followed though, and with it becoming one of if not “the” hit indie movie of the summer there are expectations to temper. “The Big Sick” is an all-around good movie and is aided by the fact it not only has an interesting love story at the heart of it, but by the fact that it also champions the acceptance of different cultures in America by showing the day to day existence of a native Pakistani man and a Pakistani family while featuring all-around great performances from a dream cast with the bonus of being sincere in the emotions it means to elicit from its audience. I wasn’t as moved as I expected to be though there is a scene involving a few voicemails that will undoubtedly get anyone with any remnant of a soul, but I was invested in the characters plight and more importantly, in the characters themselves. I was happy to see Bo Burnham on the big screen for the second time this summer and I was more than moved by the amount of heart this thing showed in the moments that it let go of all the inhibitions surrounding media these days and just allowed itself and its characters to be happy and human, but this isn’t necessarily the exceptional piece of filmmaking you might have been led to believe. It’s very good for what it is and there is much to be said for that (I’ve just written nearly 2,500 words on it, so there’s that), but not every piece of art that is exemplary for its own form or, in this case, genre, should be a masterpiece and “The Big Sick,” while no masterpiece of the cinematic art form, is still a very good movie. A movie that plays as both pleasing and challenging in that it admits its love story isn't a fairy tale, but still comes with a "Happily Ever After".