The Big Sick Review
‘Rom-com’ is a genre term many still think of with contempt. Yet for a while now, modern productions have been reinventing this particular film world, turning the usual tropes upside down and delivering great films such as Knocked Up (2007), Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015) – films that manage to find that difficult balance between humour and poignancy. The Big Sick (2017) is the latest film that walks the fine line between laughter and tears, and is more memorable and impactful than any recently seen.
A big slice of this is to do with the story itself – a tale that is not only effectively told, but very much true. Based on the real-life relationship between Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who both wrote the screenplay, this is the usual boy meets girl and falls in love deal, the couple soon finding inevitable obstacles getting in the way of their happiness. However, the things preventing them from being together are more complex than usual here, with Kumail’s Muslim upbringing and strict family dictating that he must keep with tradition and marry a Pakistani girl, which to Emily’s horror has prevented him from telling them about her. Then things take a turn for the even worse when Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) falls suddenly ill and is placed in a medically induced coma. Soon, Kumail’s days are filled with long stretches in a hospital waiting room staring at the walls, all the while trying to decide just what the future may hold – a future that Emily might not even be a part of.
Those familiar with director Michael Showalter’s previous film, Hello, My Name is Doris (2015), will know already how adept he is at mixing comedy with drama. An unexpected delight that was hilarious and touching in equal measure, Doris was also striking for how it presented a version of romance not always seen onscreen, Showalter turning the idea of an older female protagonist wanting love into an attainable possibility, and one we very much rooted for. Showalter uses the same formula here for another unconventional narrative, beginning The Big Sick with general rom-com lightness as Kumail and Emily’s relationship is established and steadily grows, pulling us into their lives in an impressively natural way before the real issues come to bear. By then we are truly hooked into their world, invested in their story and tearing up at every heart-breaking bit of news about Emily’s condition that Kumail and her ever-attentive parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are given.
That plot obviously adds a powerful weight to the film, but it is actually the writing itself that creates the most impact onscreen. The relationship between Kumail and Emily is completely immersive, the dialogue easily zipping back and forth between them, as one would imagine the couple to be in real life. Everyday scenes at the start feel completely organic (and probably are), as if we really are opening a window into their lives and looking in as they carry out everyday activities like watching films or going shopping together. This is something wholly backed-up by Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Kazan, both brilliant presences and with an easy chemistry that makes scenes between them a joy to watch. Kazan makes Emily a grounded, believable character, preventing her from becoming too sweet or kooky, as often happens with female roles in rom-coms such as this. And Nanjiani is charming without being smarmy, even when he’s picking up women in bars with cheesy chat-up lines. He easily switches between the comedic and darker parts of the film, particularly standing out in the later, serious moments, his smiling face crumbling every time another setback is thrown his way, whether that be in his flailing career as a stand-up comedian or his family’s constant barrage of Pakistani women they want him to marry. Yet it is in the portrayal of his relationship with Emily that he truly shines, his heart visibly breaking every time her condition worsens or when he’s forced to the back of a room to listen in while Emily’s parents are given news he both is, and isn’t, entitled to hear.
It is when Emily’s mother and father enter the picture that things become even more complicated for Kumail – two people he never expected or wanted to meet, which is something they are well aware of. It is also here that one of the film’s more unexpected relationships starts to flourish with a perfect, absorbing realism, Kumail slowly turning their contempt for him around and finding them to be a stark contrast to his own strict (but loving) parents. Even Terry (Romano) and Beth (Hunter) have their own issues though, a point that could have felt tacked on to the story, yet with the emotional gravitas Romano and Hunter bring makes it necessary and realistic. Romano does caring, sympathetic Dad brilliantly, his monotone, dry responses making for some of the greatest laughs of the film, while Hunter delivers one of the best turns out of the secondary cast with a fiery performance that lights up the sad and the funnier moments equally (with one highlight taking part during one of Kumail’s stand-up shows).
While Kumail is trying to win over someone else’s parents, his own sadly seem about to push him away in the name of tradition. This is another strand to The Big Sick that makes it stand out from recent rom-coms, and an idea that could have unwisely been portrayed in an over-excessive, or even preachy way. Instead Nanjiani uses his own background and presence in the story to deftly explore these issues of culture clashes concisely and without prejudice, him and Gordon looking at it from many different angles. Although Kumail’s situation is devastating, no-one is demonised or admonished, Gordon and Nanjiani keen to show how arranged marriages can actually work for some – another option for people looking for love, however unconventional that may seem to others. In the same way, Showalter is careful to present these ideas without ever being patronising or resorting to easy stereotypes to get a quick laugh, something many comedies are often guilty of doing.
With this, as well as the many other narrative threads, there could have been a danger of detracting from the bittersweet love story at the heart of The Big Sick. However, Showalter ensures these other plot points are kept in balance throughout, never losing sight of their relationship and using these other strands to better build a fully fleshed-out, realistic world onscreen. The obvious verisimilitude of Gordon and Nanjiani’s situation adds a great deal to this, as does their pitch-perfect writing which is at often times hilarious, and sometimes desperately upsetting. With superb performances added to the mix, and a strong lead in Nanjiani, this is an enchanting film from start to finish, so much so that when it does end, it is almost jarring. As the credits roll, you’ll find yourself eager to know what happened next, and then what happened even further down the line after that. And it isn’t often that a rom-com, even a great one, makes you wonder that.
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