The lights go down in the comedy club, and our hero, on the verge of tears, takes the stage.
Processing some terrible news, he breaks down on the stage, baring his soul to a captive club audience – and an equally-captive movie theater audience. All the emotions he’s restrained and the lies he’s told to get here come pouring out as the camera slowly circles around him…. And then we cut. Next scene. We’ll see the rest of this later on YouTube in a montage sequence. Sorry.
To be clear, this isn’t necessarily the wrong directorial decision to make, especially in a movie that already feels about 20 minutes too long. If director Michael Showalter had allowed that monologue to continue, it would essentially devolve into a tear-filled plot recap. But it’s indicative of the tonal dissatisfaction that comes with The Big Sick. You’re rooting for it to tug your heartstrings, you really want the empathy impact, but the film stops just short of getting you there. It’s a movie which is “pretty good” but doesn’t achieve “great” for really no reason.
Written by Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a dramatized version of their actual relationship, when Nanjiani was a struggling comedian and Gordon (played here by Zoe Kazan) a PhD student. The two meet after one of Kumail’s sets and begin the young-person mating ritual of turning a series of “last time I promise” one-night-stands into a burgeoning relationship. Their relationship is brought to an abrupt halt because of Kumail’s family commitment to arranged marriage, shown here in the form of awkward family dinners where beautiful Pakistani women “happen to drop by.” Closely following the break-up, Emily falls mysteriously ill and must be placed in a medically-induced coma, and Kumail is left making peace with his now-ex-girlfriend’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.)
In reviewing Showalter’s last film Hello My Name Is Doris, I observed it felt like the former The State alum had “recently discovered sincerity and wasn’t really sure what to do with it yet.” Meanwhile, writer/star Nanjiani is a veritable wellspring of candidness and openness with this story, driven by his love of Richard-Curtis-style impossible romantic comedies. To this end, the film feels constantly in conflict with how sappy and sentimental (or how darkly sardonic) it wants to be, leaving an overall feeling of “pleasantness.” This is how we reach a film that feels overly long but also doesn’t feel like anything should be cut. The pleasantness gives the darker jokes an added punch, but it also denies us a truly satisfying emotional arc.
This doesn’t mean the movie isn’t charming, but like with most romantic comedies, the real joy is found in the supporting cast.
Hunter is a beast here, pitting straightforward southern anger alongside Romano’s wishy-washy New York neurosis. The film’s best moment revolves around their various ways of dealing with a racist heckler at one of Kumail’s performances. But equally amusing are Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s well-meaning parents, constantly doting over their son but frustrated by his rejection of their culture. As Kumail struggles to tell his family that his beliefs clash with theirs, the film pulls into a more My Big Fat Greek Wedding direction, but from a decidedly less-white perspective. (The question of Hollywood’s recent love affair with the “secular Muslim” is a topic more befitting of our Turban Decay column, but is covered fairly well here.)
Nanjiani and Kazan’s chemistry is more dry and subtle than traditional rom-coms dictate, but it works. A heavy amount of Emily and Kumail’s flirtation involves her calling out tricks and tropes which will feel familiar to audiences experienced in the dating scene. She begrudgingly tolerates Kumail’s living situation and actively heckles him when he attempts to judge her tastes in film. It’s a shame that she’s sidelined for plot purposes for much of the film and is absent for much of Kumail’s character development. Although the film is quick to address this, ultimately it leaves the audience somewhat ambivalent about the fate of its core couple as the film wraps up.
The Big Sick is stuck somewhere between an update and a full deconstruction of the ‘90s genre formula. As a result, it feels somewhat disconnected and may only get about 90% of what is needed to truly love it. But that 90% is more than enough for a pleasant and very funny moviegoing experience. In a genre that’s often unfairly maligned, it’s nice to see a film like this stand on its own merits, it just often lets its pleasantries strangle its potential.
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