|Original caricature by Jeff York of Kumail Nanjiani, flanked by Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter,|
in THE BIG SICK.
One of the most beleaguered genres on film these days is the romantic comedy. So wholly maligned and unsuccessful have such movies been during the last decade, the genre has all but dried up as a staple at the Cineplex. Long gone are the days when the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, and Jennifer Aniston were churning them out with regularity and claiming superstar status at the box office. The closest the rom-com has come to greatness in the last decade was twice - first with the cult hit 500 DAYS OF SUMMER in 2009, and then with the Oscar-winning HER in 2013. But to show you how strange the genre has become, in the former, the couple bitterly breaks up, and in the latter the protagonist falls for his Seri-like computer program. No wonder the genre struggles to find meaningful expressions of lasting love.
Well, the new romantic comedy THE BIG SICK could and should change all that, though I hesitate to even call the film such a thing in the first place because it’s so much more than that. It’s a complex character study, a social satire, and a timely commentary on race relations. Mostly, it’s a first-rate comedy, plain and simple, one of the best to appear onscreen in a long, long time. And it is easily one of the best films of 2017.
There are many things that make THE BIG SICK so special and unique, none more so than its exceptional and wholly distinctive main character. The romantic protagonist is named Kumail, a Pakistan comedian who’s trying to make it in Chicago. He’s played by Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistan born actor and comedian who’s made a big splash the past few years with his stand-up specials, various podcasts he hosts, supporting roles in movies, and most notably, his starring role on HBO’s SILICON VALLEY. Indeed, this film is very biographical, as Kumail’s story onscreen is essentially the same true one that happened a decade ago. During that time, Kumail dated an American named Emily Gordon, and this film is about the winding road their relationship took in those early years.
Together, they’ve written THE BIG SICK and it is one of the most specific and intimately involving scripts ever written, no matter what the genre. In the movie, superbly brought to life by director Michael Showalter (HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS), the character of Kumail is struggling with many issues, including love. He’s trying to make it in the demanding world of stand-up. His family is pressuring him to be a good Muslim, including their attempts to set him up with the right Pakistani girl to marry. And Kumail also must deal with the day-to-day racism that someone of his persuasion faces in the age of Trump travel ban wishes.
This film was shot starting in May of 2016, right as the 45th president-to-be was wrapping up the GOP nomination. Trump’s stoking of the flames of intolerance became a crucial part of the story here, particularly when a heckler at a comedy club implores him to “Go back to ISIS.” It’s a painful, cringe-inducing moment, and it underscores the fact that this movie is bold in not only having a Pakistan-American in the lead, but that it does so in a time when certain audiences may not even give this film a chance because its hero is of such descent. It’s one of the many bold choices this film makes. But there are amazing risks taken across the board.
Most notably, the film is incredibly daring in how it defies the conventions of the romantic comedy. Sure, the first third of the film chronicles how Kumail met Emily (Zoe Kazan) in a somewhat typical fashion. Their “meet cute” occurs in the comedy club when he sarcastically asks the audience if “Pakistan is in the house.” (Hinsdale and Bucktown, sure, but Pakistan? Ah, no.) She whoops and hollers, even though she’s a Midwest girl, and that draws his attention. From that moment, they forge a mutual bond based on similarly ironic senses of humor, as well as their strong physical attraction to each other.
My favorite moment in their courtship is when he pops a copy of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, the 1971 horror classic starring Vincent Price, into his DVD player with the intention of watching her reaction to it. After her response doesn’t seem enthusiastic enough to Kumail, Emily dryly remarks, “I love it when men test me on my taste.” Who wouldn’t love a woman so keenly aware of the games the opposite sex plays during courtship? Indeed, Kumail does fall for her, and they quickly become two peas in a pod, developing a glib and playful banter reflecting similar sensibilities and rhythms.
The script is chock full of great dialogue, equal parts snark and love. For half an hour, they fall in love, and we fall in love with them too. But then the inciting incident happens in the script and here it’s a doozy. Emily breaks up with Kumail upon the discovery of his refusal to tell his parents about her. He admits to her that he sees no future for them as she is not Pakistani and cannot fit into the traditions and expectations from his stringent family. It devastates her and she dumps him. But then, she becomes sick and is taken to the hospital. A classmate asks Kumail to look in on her as it’s finals week - Emily is a psychology major grad student – and Kumail does so, only to find that the doctors need to induce her into a coma to save her life. He ends up giving them permission to do so as her parents are states away and could not be contacted. Now Kumail is linked to here again. And yet, for the next hour of this romantic comedy, Emily is unconscious.
It’s audacious plotting for sure, but as the narrative veers into this most unconventional of Act Two’s, the film becomes truly outstanding. Kumail’s character arc is now primarily concerned with how he relates to Emily’s parents once they show up to take care of her. Beth and Terry, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, adore their daughter and drop everything to devote themselves to her care. They’re the kind of parents who know most everything going on in their child’s life, including all the details of Emily’s messy break-up with Kumail. Needless to say, they are not too fond of him. Yet, even with that working against him, Kumail starts to realize just how much he truly does love and care about Emily, and he starts to develop a deeper relationship with her even though she is in a coma, as well as with her parents. The three became staples in the hospital, vigilantly staying by her side for weeks.
Over the course of the next hour of the movie, Kumail and Emily’s folks develop a complex relationship, one that turns from tension with each other to helping take care of Emily together to a friendship where they take care of each other as well. To tell more about the plot at this point would be to spoil some of the wonderful laughs, tears and surprises in store, but the film indeed does become a love story between Kumail and Emily’s parents as well.
Hunter and Romano give extraordinary performances here, capturing Emily’s parents’ fears, sorrow, hopes and enthusiasms with equal aplomb. Their marriage is complicated, one of the more complex and nuanced couplings ever presented onscreen. Their bond is strained by personality differences, past resentments and even some terrible indiscretions. The two actors play together and apart so well, I wouldn’t be surprised if come Oscar time, they both are remembered with nominations in the supporting categories.
Also impressive are the other featured players. Showalter’s impressive resume as an actor makes him a natural to bring out the best in his cast, and indeed he does. Anupahm Kher and Zenobia Shroff add nuance and even sympathy to their stubbornness as Kumail’s parents, Adeel Akhtar and Shenaz Treasury mine plenty of laughs as Kumail’s brother and sister-in-law who are trying to navigate Pakistani tradition and American modernity, and Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunholer and Bo Burnham create vivid impressions as Kumail’s curt but caring fellow comics. It also doesn’t hurt that the executive producer here is Judd Apatow, a man and mogul who knows how to assemble top-notch casts from top to bottom be it on the big screen or the small one.
Still, at the end of the day, this film’s success depends upon how much we care about the relationship between Kumail and Emily. And we care a lot. Both Nanjiani and Kazan are incredibly engaging performers - accessible, warm, sly, and knowing. Kazan makes a profound impression early as Emily as we must care about her so much during that first act that we become invested in her plight wholly even when she’s barely onscreen for that middle hour. She’s very funny and lovable, even when she’s being obstinate, and she and Nanjiani have great comic rapport. They’re so far from typical romantic leads, bringing something far quirkier and even odd to the proceedings. I like how Emily is messy and how Kumail often wears the clothing of a junior high nerd. Sure, the film hits the beats necessary for such a genre piece as a rom-com, and the script has a deep belief in love at its core, but at most every instance this film zigs where others would zag.
Even Nanjiani, who can earn laughs by merely staring at someone onscreen, gives a performance that is so strongly dramatic it will surprise you. This part requires him to hit notes of melancholy, fury, and uncertainty, and he nails every one of them. Whether it’s his confession that he doesn’t know if there’s a god, or his pained body language when he’s rejected by Emily, or when he bombs in front of a Hollywood exec, Nanjiani is a wondrous actor. His is truly is the performance that needs to be remembered by critics and Oscar come awards time.
THE BIG SICK may be about a girl in a coma, but like another film with a similar theme – Pedro Almodovar’s 2002 drama TALK TO HER – this is one of the most involving and compelling love stories ever put onscreen. This rom-com defies convention from its narrative to its leading man to its political timeliness. I walked in not knowing anything about it except who was in it. I walked out buoyed by its brilliance. I hope this film finds an audience. If it doesn’t, then heaven help the romantic comedy, or for that matter, the state of film.