Review: The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017)
Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Aidy Bryant. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Directed by Michael Showalter.

The Big Sick is the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in ages, although it feels a lot more like a traditional romance flecked with a lot of comedy than a by-the-book romantic comedy. I think this is because in a romantic comedy, the conflicts are sort of like Daffy Duck having his bill blown off by Elmer Fudd’s hunting rifle. They exist so that when our couple kisses at the end, we feel good about them, their growth as people and as a couple, and their future, which was never really in doubt. We never really believe Daffy’s in danger.

In this semi-autobiographical film about (and starring) Kumail Nanjiani, the conflicts feel genuinely threatening to the future of the couple, even though we know, since the story is based on real-life people who are married today, that the end is most likely to be happy. The writing and acting are so good that everything feels real and believable, unlike most romantic comedies, which have more of a fairy tale quality.

When Kumail, a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago, meets a graduate student named Emily, there isn’t an instant connection. It’s a casual flirtation, but each character hits a note that clearly resonates with the other, and flirtation very quickly becomes something more, and it is all believable. Within a few scenes, I stopped seeing an interracial couple and only saw two people in love, which is a pretty terrible way to say that the emotions were powerful enough as to affect the visuals. These people belong together in every conceivable way.

Which brings us to the two major conflicts. Kumail is a Pakistani immigrant, and his family expects him to honor the tradition of arranged marriage. It’s an old literary and cinematic device, but somehow it feels fresher and realer than I’ve seen it played out. “Why did you bring me to America if you don’t want me to live an American life?” asks Kumail of his parents. It works because it’s not really a conflict between Kumail and his family; it’s really about Kumail’s being torn between his family and his girlfriend.

Then Emily goes into a coma, and suddenly he is at her hospital bedside with her parents, and how is he supposed to get through any of this?

The funny parts are funny. The awkward parts are awkward. The scary parts are scary. The romantic parts are romantic. This is what I mostly look for in a good movie: the believability of artifice. I am not a huggy guy, and I usually see hugs in film (and especially on television) as a cheap device to evoke a response, rather than as a natural expression of affection between two characters, but there are many hugs in this movie and I felt them all and believed them all. There is nothing cheap about them or about anything else.

Highly recommended for any but the most jaded movie-watchers.


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