Movie Review: The Big Sick

I know! It’s summer! That’s robots punching robots time, not super tiny independent rom-com time! YET HERE WE ARE.

The Big Sick is a mostly autobiographical film about Kumail Najiani, a Pakistani-American standup comic and actor (Silicon Valley, Franklin and Bash), and how he met his wife, Emily Gordon. While they were dating, Emily got incredibly and mysteriously sick, and was put into a medically induced coma for several weeks. (She recovered! That’s why they can make a funny movie about it.)  It’s written by Nanjiani and Gordon, and directed by Michale Showalter

In the movie, Nanjiani plays himself, and Zoe Kazan (Our Brand is Crisis, Olive Kitteridge) plays Emily. They meet at one of Kumail’s standup sets, and sideways-fall into dating. At the same time, Kumail’s Pakistani family (they came to the US when he was 18) are in the midst of setting Kumail up with an arranged marriage, and they don’t know about Emily. Every time he goes to his parents’ house for dinner, a young, single, Pakistani woman happens to drop by, and gives Kumail a headshot before they leave. Emily finds the stash of pictures, gets very angry that Kumail hasn’t been honest with anyone about their relationship, they break up, and then she ends up in the hospital with an infection. Kumail ends up dealing with his feelings for her, her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), his family, and his career.

Nanjiani’s comedy tends to run to extremely dry, fish-out-of-water, and I love it. A running theme of this is the paradox of being a child of immigrants. Kumail’s parents came to the US for a better life, but  also expect Kumail to be a typical Pakistani and devout Muslim man. They get angry with him when he instead is living an American life. The theater I saw this in was PACKED, and there were a lot of younger people in the audience, and when he finally says, “Why did you come here for me, but expect me to live like we’re still there?” there was an audible rumble of recognition and agreement around the theater. It echoes a sentiment I’ve heard from friends who have immigrant parents.

(Side note: this is one of the reasons I love watching movies with an audience.)

Holly Hunter is a phenomenal actress, but I don’t know if I ever really realized that she is GREAT at comedy. Ray Romano has…gotten more tolerable as he’s gotten older and the memory of Everybody Loves Raymond has faded from my memory. They are great as these layered people who are terrified for their daughter, trying to come to terms with this guy who hurt their daughter terribly but who’s hanging around, and who are working through some relationship stuff on their own.  I liked their performances a lot.

I also liked Kumail’s parents, played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher. They clearly love their children, and they are HILARIOUS, but they’re bound by their ideas of how adulthood should look, and when Kumail doesn’t want any of that, and instead announces that he’s in love with a white woman, they don’t react well. (In reality, they also did not react well to Emily, but apparently came around when Kumail and Emily got married.)

I saw Zoe Kazan in the play Love Love Love in New York City last fall. She’s VERY good, and is also a playwright and activist. I love her. She’s dry and witty and matches up with Najiani and his style. They’re very well-matched as actors, and I wish her the best career full of work she believes in (that also pays the rent).

The pacing does drag a bit in the middle. The movie goes through Kumail and Emily meeting (he hits on her by writing her name in Urdu, and she asks how often that works. Surprisingly well, actually), then getting serious, then breaking up, then she ends up in the hospital, then it’s kind of an episode of House without Hugh Laurie (it’s not lupus), then she gets better, then they reconcile. There’s a lot to get through, and I’m not sure how I would tweak the pacing.

And while I know this is primarily from Kumail’s point of view, we only get Emily’s experience through other people (Holly Hunter’s “You made my daughter sad and I will kill you where you stand” glower is something to behold). I’m not, as I’m writing this, sure if that’s a weakness, but I will say it’s a valid storytelling technique.

We do get a fabulous scene where one of the Pakistani women talks about her own experience with the setups-toward-potential-arranged-marriages, and she gives Kumail a solid kick to get his head out of his ass. (It’s a romcom. He spends some time with his head up his ass. It’s one of the conventions.)

That said, there’s been discussion about the portrayal of Muslim and Desi men in some recent shows and movies, and their relationships with white and Desi women.  I feel completely unqualified to discuss the issue, but here is a good piece by Tanzila Ahmed that explains some of the issues, and another by Imran Siddiquee on Buzzfeed.  Here’s another by Bina Shah talking about how Desi women rarely get a starring narrative in Western films.

I enjoyed this a lot, and it’s having a slow, rolling release schedule. It’s is currently scheduled for wide release on July 17th, and I recommend it to all romance fans who miss romantic comedies, and miss seeing emotional and hilarious happily ever afters on the big screen. It’s sweet and funny and touching. Go see it. You won’t regret it.

The Big Sick is in theaters now. Tickets are available (US) at Fandango and Moviefone.

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