The Big Sick (2017) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 120 min.
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Kurt Braunohler, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant
Small role: David Alan Grier
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenplay: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Review published July 18, 2017
Kumail Nanjiani stars and co-scripts this romantic comedy about himself (more or less), a Pakistani immigrant to America turned stand-up comedian living in Chicago who ends up going out and then falling into a romantic relationship with a white, non-Muslim psychology graduate student named Emily (Kazan, In Your Eyes). Contrary to both of their desires to stay unattached, things are going remarkably well, though that is also part of the problem, as his very strict and traditional Pakistani family expect - no, require - Kumail to find a Pakistani woman to court and marry, which they are busy trying (and failing) to arrange, so he keeps his relationship with Emily on the sly.
Meanwhile, the young comedian must keep his head in the game to try to secure a spot in an important comedy festival that may kick-start his career in show business beyond local gigs. Life gets even more complicated when it is discovered that Emily is suffering from an illness that has the doctors baffled, leaving Kumail and Emily's parents flying in from North Carolina to bond during the hospital visits, while also knowing that Kumail and Emily may not end up together, if, and when, the medical ordeal is over.
Based on the real-life experiences of Nanjiani and credited co-screenwriter Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is an often winning and refreshingly original romantic comedy, produced by Judd Apatow, who is now making quite a niche career producing starring vehicles for his fellow stand-up comedians with their own stories to tell (Trainwreck being the other prime example for Amy Schumer). Like most of Apatow's own works, it's a bit long, a bit slack, a bit slapdash, but quite funny when it needs to be. Though based on true events, the film is obviously played up mostly for broad laughs, which, while scattershot in its approach, will likely yield enough guffaws and poignant moments of reflection to make this a stand-out debut starring vehicle from Nanjiani, who has stolen scenes in other film comedies as a bit player in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and Central Intelligence.
As far as the quality of the filmmaking goes, it's not not much to write about, with director Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris, The Baxter) a bit uneven in his approach to the narrative, highlighting the funnier and more wistful bits above all else, though the combination of drama and romance that are interwoven do results in a few uneven and awkward moments. Cigar box revelations, in which Kumail keeps photographs of Pakistani-American women he has no interest in and who all seemingly use the same camera, seem obvious, while a gag involving Emily pressing for a late-night bathroom run seems to be bending over backward to find a raunchy laugh, as it doesn't make sense for a woman to be embarrassed about using a bathroom in the middle of the night when the residents of that home are sound asleep. The comedy can also play quite broadly, especially in Kumail's relationship with his pushy Pakistani parents, resulting in contrivances that stretch the credibility of the true-life nature of the story into the realm of typical family sitcom fare.
Fans of Nanjiani will likely be most pleased with this effort, and it is strong enough in its comedy that it will likely garner him a slew of new followers to appreciate his very funny comedic efforts, both as a stand-up and as a comedic actor. Although his range is mostly limited, and, at nearly 40, you have to suspend a good deal of disbelief to understand why he is far from having his act together, thanks to his dead-pan observations and willingness to do whatever it takes to sell the laugh, he remains a likeable enough presence that we root for him to find happiness, and the jokes can be surprising, even when it feels obvious as to where the story elements themselves eventually go.
Other more seasoned actors fare better, though the casting is a bit hit or miss, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano seeming an odd pair, and they get mired in a couple of especially strained scenes, like an attempt to attend Kumail's stand-up performance that goes amok thanks to a racist heckler. Zoe Kazan is also good as Emily, especially during the emotional bits, but, given the nature of the illness, she literally doesn't get to contribute much for much of the second half of the film.
As a comedic look into the difficulties of maintaining a family and religious tradition even when it isn't readily understood as to why they are maintained, and as an interesting and often amusing look into a rather unique situation that substitutes for regular courtship, The Big Sick emerges as a fun and funny comedy that finds more than enough truthful moments to savor amid some of the more manufactured elements of the shtick. It's a film that is more consistently likeable than it is consistently good from an objective standpoint, but there are enough laughs, and a few tears, to justify the effort to go see it.
©2017 Vince Leo