2017 Sundance Film Festival London: The Big Sick Review
It's not often a romantic comedy can get by without a string of big laugh moments, yet The Big Sick does just that, thanks to an earnestly told love story that compensates for the low laughter return. Which is not to say the film is completely humour free, more that it remains consistently amusing rather than setting up scenes that offer big pay backs. The honesty and warmth of the story no doubt extends from the fact it is inspired by the real-life relationship of its star, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife and co-writer, Emily V. Gordon.
Kumail plays a slight variation of his real self: an unknown stand-up comedian living in Chicago called Kumail, who came to America from Pakistan as a child. One evening at his local comedy club, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) and while they click easily, neither is looking for love. At first not willing to commit to a long-term relationship, it becomes clear to them both they feel something more meaningful starting to happen. Love could be in the air but as it’s a rom-com, we all know the path to happiness can never be trouble free.
The curveball this time is not an ex, commitment problems or any of the obvious obstacles, but rather, entrenched cultural barriers. Kumail comes from a traditional Muslim household, with the expectation being that he eventually settles down with an arranged married to a Pakistani Muslim woman. He keeps this a secret from Emily, so when she does eventually find out, their relationship falls apart because ultimately it will come down to Kumail being forced to choose between his family or Emily. Just when it appears they are finished for good, Emily is rushed to hospital suffering from a mystery infection that sees her placed into a medically induced coma. Kumail finds himself at the hospital with her parents throughout the entire ordeal, thrown into a potentially uncomfortable situation once he learns they know everything about the break-up.
Even though Kazan spends much of the film off camera in a coma, it speaks volumes that her and Kumail's relationship always remains believable. There is an easy-going chemistry between the two that easily fits into place during the first act, carried further by Nanjiani’s genuine performance once she is hospitalised. Judd Apatow serves as a producer and so it naturally follows that improvisation plays a big part in much of the comedy. This means the jokes are more conversational and delivered without much of zing, mostly drawing smiles and light chuckles - although a stand-out 9/11 one-liner does hit the spot.
Holly Hunter and Ray Comano play Emily’s parents and do a fine job rounding out some of the comedic and emotional context derived from their daughter’s dire condition. Hunter in particular is always a joy to watch, given her ability to bring real warmth and intensity to almost every role she appears in. Not only is it pleasing to see an Asian lead a romantic comedy but it also offers a rare big screen insight into the cultural clash experienced by so many of the 2nd and 3rd generation in the West. The two hour run-time feels surprisingly light because despite being short on laughs, you are eager to spend more time with a cast of likeable and heartfelt people.