The Big Sick Proves a Salve to the Soul

Movie Review: The Big Sick

Rom-com meets Romeo and Juliet in Kumail Nanjiani’s truth-inspired story that follows our lovesick hero down hospital corridors to face life, death and family

The Big Sick

4/5

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Aktar, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant

Directed by: Michael Showalter

Running time: 1 hr 59 mins

MPAA Rating: Restricted

Big Sick Nanjiani

Girlfriend in a Coma: You know it’s serious, but it’s also funny.

By Katherine Monk

“Do you see a future where we can be together?” That’s the question Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) asks her boyfriend Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) in The Big Sick’s pivotal scene, but it’s the question that also defines the whole movie — on two very different levels.

On the surface, Emily’s query is a reflection on romance that echoes inside every lover’s heart and forms the essential beats of every love story, be it comic or dramatic: Will this work? Can love transcend guilt, disappointment and fear?

In this particular case, based entirely on Kumail and Emily’s own story, it’s a case of personal guilt and parental disappointment. Kumail comes from a traditional Pakistani family that believes in arranged marriage. Falling in love with someone outside the faith and the community would mean exile. Can Kumail see a future with Emily, or will he surrender to the wishes of his family to keep them happy and be a good son?

Depending on the answer, it’s either rom-com or Romeo and Juliet. The Big Sick is a little of both because it takes the whole notion of “the future” to a different level. Shortly after Kumail answers Emily’s question, she gets sick. She’s diagnosed with an aggressive lung infection, put on intravenous antibiotics and medically sedated into a comatose state.

What begins as cross-racial romantic comedy takes a sudden turn into the very real world of life and death. The title prepared us for it, so you can’t really bitch about the deepening pool beneath you. Like the players in this all-too human comedy, the best you can do is tread water and stay afloat as the waves break in your face.

Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) makes it easy. He follows the floor pattern of a rom-com, a one-two-three-act waltz that subconsciously keeps us in the safe zone. So even as the tones grow darker, we’re still watching a guy trying to get his girl back while facing down his own insecurities.

What begins as cross-racial romantic comedy takes a sudden turn into the very real world of life and death. The title prepared us for it, so you can’t really bitch about the deepening pool beneath you. Like the players in this all-too human comedy, the best you can do is tread water and stay afloat as the waves break in your face.

Kumail Nanjiani’s performance can’t be undervalued, either, even though he is playing himself. The comic had to sell us every single piece of the puzzle to take us to a tender place. We had to buy his performance without feeling the sheen of revisionism. Most importantly, we had to buy him as the leading man in a romantic film — typically the terrain of Grants and Firths and Goslings.

That was the tougher challenge to pull off given the Hollywood box of expectation doesn’t feature a ton of South Asian leads. Yet, Nanjiani has all the subtle charms that unexpressed confidence can lend to any given scene. He’s shy, but he’s not a schlemiel. He’s goofy, but he’s sexy at the same time because he’s comfortable in his body.

We see what Emily sees, and that’s why this movie works as well as it does given how predictable it feels at times. Watching Nanjiani interact with the rest of the cast, from Holly Hunter as Emily’s Mom and Ray Romano as Emily’s Dad, to Aidy Bryant and other standup talents, offers a number of small surprises.

The dialogue isn’t generic, Friends-styled set-ups and punchlines. Nor is it rom-com ultimatums and denouement. At times, there’s a little bit of family shtik at the Nanjiani home in the suburbs. For the most part, however, it feels like real people talking about their lives.

What makes it worth turning into a movie is the amount of courage each character musters in his or her own way. Courage is what makes heroes, and heroes are the stuff of epics. Showalter and Nanjiani got it right with The Big Sick.

@katherinemonk

Read Katherine Monk’s Movie Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and on The Ex-Press Archive
Photos courtesy of Elevation Pictures
THE EX-PRESS.COM, July 4, 2017

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Review: The Big Sick

User Rating

4 (15 Votes)

Summary

4Score

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan star in this dramatic comedy inspired by Nanjiani's own life, which took a dark turn when his girlfriend was admitted to hospital with a life-threatening infection. While she lay in a coma, he started bonding with her parents, resulting in a variety of comic situations steeped in potential tragedy. It's just like The Smiths tune, Girlfriend in a Coma, only with Nanjiani, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in the chorus. Sweet, deep and surprisingly funny. -- Katherine Monk

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