THE BIG SICK
Director: Michael Showalter
Runtime: 120 minutes
Language: English, Urdu
Mostlyindies Grading: A+
If you’re in the mood for a romantic comedy unlike anything you’ve seen — one that offers sharp characterizations and respects its supporting characters and the audience that is shelving 15 dollars to go see it — then Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick is the movie for you, and the comedy of the summer. On surface and without knowing anything of its backstory, the premise of Emily Gordon’s and Kumail Nunjani’s screenplay would sound like a third-rate rom-com from the 90s with the added flavor of inter-racial relations, and would probably — no, most certainly — stick with pre-established stereotypes to induce some kind of satisfying resolution like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or even (and I’m going back 30 years) Coming to America. However, their story — how they met, how they fell in love, and how human frailties and the need to get it right almost kept them apart for good — is so, so good, it almost begs to be expanded, and mind you, this is a movie that runs a minute over two hours.
Kumail Nunjani plays a version of himself, a struggling stand-up comedian living in Chicago who moonlights as a Uber driver. His parents — especially his mother — try unsuccessfully to hook him up to other Pakistani women because of a little thing called tradition to a culture’s norm of arranged marriages. Every woman he meets winds up leaving by herself and he for some reason keeps their picture in a cigar box, a thing that will come to haunt him later. During a comedy routine a girl heckles him. She turns out to be the very un-Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan, excellent), and what transpires is a case of meet-cute meets polar opposites. They just can’t keep apart from each other, and the more time they spend together, the stronger this bond between them is. All seems to be going well with the minor exception that Kumail won’t take Emily to meet his parents even though she’s been an open book to him.
And then . . . Emily finds the cigar box.
What would you do if you found that the person you’ve been dating and even planning with still carries a box with people he or she has dated over the years? Consider he’s never mentioned this to her, so all sorts of red=lights go off inside her mind. When Kumail finally does come around to tell her shortly after, it’s a minute too late: Emily feels betrayed to the core, and to add salt to the wound, she also doesn’t feel comfortable with being the woman who separated a family out of selfish motives. Perhaps, had Kumail been honest from the word go there could have been a different solution, but as it is, he chose to keep it from her, and now she feels the only way is out of the relationship. And out she goes . . . but she’s soon back into his life in a way Kumail could not have expected.
Kumail gets a call that Emily has fallen sick with a virus. Not having anyone to sign for her stay at the hospital and because her sickness has forced the hospital to perform a medially induced coma, he subs for next of kin. The following morning, Emily’s parents — Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) — arrive and aren’t too happy to see Kumail there. But there he stays, slowly ingratiating himself into their good graces as the three of them attempt to find a medical solution for Emily’s condition, which is stable, but delicate. In the interim, Kumail juggles an audition for a comedy event in Montreal and his parents continuing invasion into his own life as they present woman after woman after woman. One of them played by Vella Lovell stands out from the rest and has a poignant scene: after the requisite socializing, Kumail drives her home. She wants to meet him later on and clearly likes him. Kumail informs her that he won’t be seeing her or anyone else for that matter, because he is in love with someone else. She feels heartbroken, and in a quietly impassioned speech points out that she’s grown tired of the dating world and would like to meet someone to relax. What she can’t — or isn’t — unable to see, despite Kumail’s attempts to explain to her, is that theirs is a culture that is flawed by the very existence of arranged marriages. His explanation doesn’t really help the situation out, and in reality, it wouldn’t have anyway. The fact that Gordon and Nunjani keep it real at all times makes it the more painfully awkward but true to behold.
The Big Sick is the kind of story that could have devolved into screwball with romantic overtones, but because every character is fleshed out, and every situation is treated with precise honesty, showcasing comical moments interspersed or enhanced or at the expense of sadness, it manages to let itself breathe on its own merits and not even come close to wringing a tear from you (and promise me you will cry). Its story has a heart that is almost explosive, but one that knows where it will take you as you sit back and let its events happen and not many comedies have that sort of element anymore. Kumail’s parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) might seem stereotypical, but in fact, are Pakistani-Americans somewhat caught up in tradition and you can see where Kumail got his oblique sense of humor from. Beth and Terry never overstay their welcome, but have both powerful presences that make their mark onto the movie’s narrative. Most complicated of all is Kumail himself, playing himself, a man caught between love for a woman not of his culture and a passive-aggressive relation to his culture, which has long since had any significance in his life. What can you do when you don’t want to upset the cart and yet, somehow, you find that you can’t life with yourself when you do?
The Big Sick premiered June 23, but has since expanded to most AMC and multiplexes. I highly recommend it.