' Cinema Romantico: The Big Sick

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Big Sick

Though “The Big Sick” is based on the real life courtship of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the script for director Michael Showalter, it was made under the umbrella of producer Judd Apatow, whose own films, while often centered on romance, spring just as much from the world of standup comedy, where characters, even when speaking scripted dialogue, so often feel as if they are riffing in real time, with scenes frequently elasticized to the breaking point, where mining for the right joke often feels paramount to whatever the scene itself is meant to mean. And while Nanjiani and Gordon’s script does turn rather serious, it is considerably jokey too, though with much more of a purpose than a typical Apatow film, where even as the film documents an unconventional courtship, it also deconstructs the way in which we use jokes, to flirt, to disport, to discuss, to diffuse, to deflect.


Nanjiani plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself, also named Kumail, a Pakistani-American navigating the waters of the Chicago comedy scene. As the film opens, he is faux-heckled at a gig by the semi-fictionalized version of Emily, re-named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), and when he approaches her after the show, the give and take continues, and continues on their dates after that, their burgeoning relationship consciously, effectively evoking the idea of two comics riffing. Though they are clearly compatible, Kumail keeps secret his devout Muslim family’s yearning for him to settle down with a Pakistani women, the latter conveyed in a series of a family dinners which could use a touch more dimension but nevertheless allow for Kumail’s mom’s (Zenobia Shroff) reaction to the doorbell – “I wonder who that could be” – to become a pretty funny running joke infused with familial pressure.

The prospective brides paraded before Kumail are the stars of brief comic bits too, though in the case of Khadjia (Vella Lovell) that comedy eventually gives way to piercing clarity. She calls Kumail on the carpet when he confesses to just going along with these dates for the sake of his mother, a denial of the circumstances that induces more pain for others than himself, like Khadjia, and like his family, and like Emily who breaks up with him when she discovers he has been withholding this crucial detail, with Kumail’s standard issue cry of “I was going to tell you” ringing properly hollow. And this would have been enough for the film, sort of a rom com version of Ken Loach’s wonderful “A Fond Kiss”, but “The Big Sick”, as the title implies, throws us for another loop when Emily is rushed to the hospital with a mysterious but major illness and placed in a medically induced coma, signed off on by Kumail who, through happenstance and then devotion, finds himself as Emily’s caretaker and then Emily’s family orbit when her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), arrive.

Through witticisms and non-deeds (like watching Youtube videos instead of praying), we sense Kumail’s alienation from Pakistani culture, more in tune with the heterogeneousness of America, which is emblemized in the marriage of Beth, who hails from North Carolina, and Terry, originally from New York, a deliberate mixture of regionality representing Emily’s inherent cultural diversity. And that diversity opens up even more as Kumail enters the fold, essentially becoming the suitor, not unlike all the prospective Pakastani brides he turned his nose up at, though this is not overtly played with Kumail actively trying to sell himself but just sort of intrinsically rising from the whole twisty process. No one would confuse “The Big Sick” for being visually inventive, but Showalter still manages to wrest real emotions from moments with this unlikely trio, like a meal in a hospital cafeteria that emits the air of an awkward family dinner, one where Terry cannot help but proffer the wrong joke at the wrong time.

The casting of Romano, not exactly a versatile actor, is fairly ingenious, impeccably utilizing his specific skill set. His character is as jokey as Kumail, allowing for Terry to become something of a reflection for his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, to put Kumail’s penchant for wisecracking when self-reflection might be in order under the microscope. He sees what Terry’s attitude does to Beth, which Hunter plays off perfectly, alternating between a weariness for life and a fondness for it, caustic and compassionate, a yin and a yang that defines her entire lived-in performance, one in which she does not allow her character to compartmentalize anything but to spew forth, for better or worse.


Still, even as they all warm up to one another, the movie never sidesteps the fact that Emily is, like, in a coma, and that when – er, if – she wakes, she will have not been privy to any of this and will have to go through her own process of discovery. So many films made of these sorts of storylines step so wrong with conclusions that frustrating simplify, but “The Big Sick” never does, allowing all its characters to maintain an honest dialogue with one another and chart their way to a conclusion that feels satisfying without ringing patently false by making everything perfect. Indeed, if the whole thing seems to be building toward a kind of “I Have Cancer” Tig Notaro moment for Kumail, where he employs real life for comical philosophy, that doesn’t actually happen. It stops short, as if knowing that there actually are some things you can’t bring yourself to joke about.

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