The Big Sick (2017)

  • Time: 119 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Romance
  • Director: Michael Showalter
  • Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Aidy Bryant, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano


A couple deals with their cultural differences as their relationship grows.

2 reviews

  • The title points to at least two sicknesses in the film. The literal is Emily’s affliction, which graduates from swollen foot to an induced coma and possible death. The metaphoric is the crust of isolation and shame that religious groups, with their tradition of arranged marriage, impose on their young to secure their cultural continuity. The motive may be be proper but the effects can be destructive. The first sickness we can’t necessarily control; the second we can so should.
    There may be a third disease: “Always with the comedy.” As Kumail and his friends are stand-up comedians they are afflicted with the compulsion to take a comic perspective on everything. Kumail often has to add “That was a joke” to a line that doesn’t quite connect.
    To outsiders this could be a problem, as choosing comedy over law is a dubious career choice. But the comic impulse may prove more of a cure than an illness. It requires detachment and an engaged intelligence and wit. So it can be a salutary way of dealing with misfortune and of bridging gaps between people.
    The latter is how Kumail uses his comedy to connect to non-Pakistani audiences. He also uses it to deal with his family, his break-up with Emily, her antagonistic parents, and briefly his loss of them all. It works. Note that it’s the comedian’s remark about Emily’s swollen ankle that points them in the direction that will save her life. The comedian observes and remembers and remarks.
    Of course comedy has its limits. We see his act bomb when he can’t make jokes in the face of Emily’s danger. We’re told it bombed when he based it on his dilemma between losing his love and losing his family. That’s the risk when the comedy moves from Henry Youngman entertainer to post-Bruce/Sahl social commentator. To remind us of his serious intentions Kumail also works up a one-man show about Pakistan and the issues a young Pakistani faces in North American life.
    Kumail grows up when he decides to be true to himself and to stop hiding. That is, he stops “pretending” or performing in his real life. He tells his parents he no longer believes in Islam and he has a non-Muslim girlfriend. If that means a break in the family it will be his parents’ choice not his. He will live with their abandonment, if necessary.
    The signs are good at the end. His brother visits his one-man show, his father comes to see him off to New York, and his mother refuses to speak to or look at him — but won’t send off him without his favourite biryani.
    As Kumail argues, why did his parents make by their admitted sacrifices to bring their children to America if not to become Americans? Parents do their children no favour by rigidly proscribing their lives, especially their emotional engagements. The culture most securely survives by bending with the new climes and times instead of importing and perpetuating old prejudices.
    Perhaps the key scene is the stand-up performance to which Kumail brings Emily’s parents on the eve of her surgery. Like any storyteller he lies to tell a greater truth. He claims he has to go headline the show — to get away from them. When they insist on coming he arranges to perform.
    That public performance transforms his personal life. Beth and Terry warm to his act. They are mobilized to defend him when a frat-type racist heckles him. Beth attacks back with such wit and spirit that we understand why they will accept Kumail in their family, and where Emily gets the courage and warmth to embrace him. Terry threatens more violence toward the heckler than wit but is equally validating.
    The fissure in Emily’s parents’ marriage is also a healthy sign. It parallels the ethnic division in the larger. Hence the observation, you can’t really measure your love for someone until you’ve betrayed them. As Beth and Terry recover their intimacy and trust, Emily eventually takes Kumail back. And the Pakistani and non-Pakistani families will connect and enjoy each other. For our differences are not to keep separating us but to enrich our connection by our bridging them.

  • I have heard The Big Sick described as a romantic comedy and it is but it is so much more than just romance and laughs. Just as you think you have it figured out, it throws something else at you. This would have easily been one of my top five for the first half of the year if I had seen it before I wrote that column. It will be one of the best, if not these best, for the year. A good rom/com has to set up changes in character and situation that leaves you wondering what will happen. This movie does that in a grand, almost Shakespearean way.
    This is another “based on real events” movie but this one has the advantage of having the man, Kumail Nanjiani, who lived it as one of the writers and the lead. The other writer of the script, Emily V. Gordon, is the real woman on which the female lead is based. They have kept the story clear and direct no matter how strange it seems to travel into the weird. The director, Michael Showalter, doesn’t have a counterpart in the story which allows him to keep track of all the technical and artistic elements. He does this very well. Between these three the movie holds your interest no matter what turn it is making. It stay believable and never drags.
    Nanjiani plays himself very well. There’s no winking at the camera when the situations get tough. He doesn’t spend any time reminding us that he’s playing himself. He does, however, keep his character believable and likeable even when he does some stupid things. Zoe Kazan plays Emily with all the emotions the character and situation demands. She has a large arch to follow and she does it perfectly, always keeping us on her side even if she’s wrong. It is the ability to make the characters believable even if they are wrong that makes the characters so enjoyable.
    Holly Hunter plays Beth, Emily’s mother. I have no quibble with her performance but there were too many times I simply couldn’t understand what she was saying. Her character is an emotional driving force and she handles that very nicely. Ray Romano play Emily’s father, Terry and he has a whole other set of problems he has to work with. These two are even matches even though their characters are close to opposite of each other. They, like Nanjiana and Kazan, are completely believable in themselves and interacting with the rest of the cast.
    It is Romano who starts something in the casting that can’t be ignored. Nanjiani is a stand-up comic but it’s his story. Romano is also from the world of stand-up as are all the actors who plays characters who are stand-up comics and many of the other characters. It’s almost as if Nanjiani and Gordon, striving for believability, got all their friends in the stand-up world to help out. This made a difference. Too often a character who is supposed to be a comic just isn’t funny because they don’t know how to deliver the lines as a stand-up and are more worried about the acting. This can make the stand-up routines unbelievable and put a negative wrinkle in the best of stories, throwing off the audiences suspension of disbelief. That did not happen in this movie.
    I give The Big Sick 5 hecklers out of 5. This movie does what a really good movie is supposed to do and it does it well. It is entertaining. I wanted to know what was going to happen next and it was funny and emotional to boot.

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