MILD SPOILERS FOR THE BIG SICK AHEAD
2017 has not been kind to the American comedy. Talented actors like Charlie Day, Will Ferrell and Dwayne Johnson have headlined comedies that have ended up being some of the worst movies of 2017 thus far and more often than not these comedies have ended up producing far more boredom than giggles. Heck, I’m saying that without having seen two of the worst reviewed comedies of 2017 so far, CHiPS and Sandy Wexler. But for those like myself that were thinking there was no hope for laugh-oriented cinema this year, here comes The Big Sick, a Judd Apatow-produced feature that actually does bring a whole bunch of yuks as well as thoughtful character work and terrific performances. A 2017 comedy with all of those elements in spades? To quote Smash Mouth, “What a concept!”
The Big Sick concerns itself with telling the real-life story of how married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Owens (both of whom write the script) met. Their tale begins when Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), while performing stand-up comedy, gets briefly “heckled” by a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan). The two hit it off at the bar after the show and spend the night together, though the two agree, at Emily’s instance, to just make this a one-night affair. Of course, the two do end up spending more and more time together, with their love for another one growing by the day even as Kumail, unbeknownst to Emily, hasn’t told his parents about Emily due to their insistence on him going into an arranged marriage to a Pakistani girl of their choosing.
Keeping Emily secret from his family and keeping that arranged marriage prospect secret from Emily leads to the two of them breaking up, but after a brief time apart, they’re reunited once Kumail is called upon to look after Emily for the night while she’s staying at the hospital. The next morning, he learns that the condition Emily has been stricken with is far more serious than anyone first believed and that she’ll have to be put into a coma so the doctors can operate on her and help her properly. Understandably, Kumail decides to stick around at the hospital to wait for Emily until she (hopefully) wakes up from her coma which leads to him meeting her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are also waiting around the hospital to do anything they can for their daughter.
The interactions between Beth & Terry and Kumail frequently make heavy use of an element that may just be the secret weapon of The Big Sick; awkwardness. Now, we all go through awkwardness on a daily basis in our social interactions (some, like myself, more than others) and it’s awesome how well The Big Sick frequently utilizes that universal aspect of human interaction to create equally engaging comedy and drama. Sometimes, such awkwardness emerges from a sense of comedic unease, such as a hospital lunch Kumail shares with his girlfriend’s parents wherein Terry probes Kumail’s thoughts on 9/11. Through the acting and camerawork in this scene, you fully get immersed in the uncomfortableness everyone feels here in interacting with each other and it makes for some incredibly memorable comedy.
Other times, we get a sense of awkwardness that contributes to more dramatic sequences. A daunting sense of unpredictability looms large over Kumail and Emily’s parents as they try to grapple with Emily’s condition and the way they respond to it sometimes just unearth’s more awkwardness in a way that feels authentic and true to how people really respond to personal tragedies. A scene where Kumail tries to order a specific type of burger to ceaseless problems while in a heavily emotional state is a perfect example of how The Big Sick manages to utilize awkward scenarios to create both humor and emotionally resonant character moments at the exact same time, ditto for when he attempts to do stand-up comedy after a trying day for his girlfriend. As he gets on stage and bares his heart for this crowd of people, you can practically taste the awkwardness in the room but you can also feel the level of care Kumail feels towards this woman.
People in real life don’t tend to respond to these kinds of tragedies with poise and grandiose speeches, but rather in more imperfect and vulnerable ways that vary from person to person. Understanding that shows an incredible sense of introspectiveness on the part of The Big Sick and that recurring use of authentic awkwardness while in the process of grief becomes an excellent way for the movie as a whole to establish its own unique naturalistic aesthetic. The kind of thoughtfulness that feeds into that atmosphere plays nicely into other aspects of the feature, such as the way The Big Sick handles Pakistani culture. Instead of demonizing it (which would stick out so badly in a film this good-natured), a more nuanced depiction of Kumail coming to terms with how his parent’s wishes don’t gel with his own ambitions emerges. Basically, The Big Sick’s handling of foreign traditions comes down to the fair position of such ideals working fine for some people (Kumail’s brother was married under an arranged marriage and he’s shown to be clearly happy) but it’s just not what Kumail feels is best for him and the desires he wants to work for in life.
It’s a thoughtful take on this subject matter that may be a prime demonstration of the more meditative attitude that drives the entire production. The same can be said for how Emily’s reasons for breaking up with Kumail (he acting untrustworthy to her by ay of lying and keeping secrets from her) are painted not as aspects she’s “overreacting” to but rather real foibles Kumail must work towards improving. Y’know, That’s such a thoughtful attitude to take and I think that’s what I love about The Big Sick most of all. It’s a movie all about looking at the flaws of human beings but also at the connections they share. We get to see disagreements and quarreling between the various characters of The Big Sick, but we do also get to see entertaining small-scale scenes of bliss between them too. Sequences of bonding between Emily and Kumail, a scene where Beth stands up to a racist heckler at Kumail’s stand-up comedy act (oh God, Holly Hunter is so great in that scene), Terry trying to find a parlor game he can play with Kumail; these moments all have big laughs in them but they’re also sincerely sweet scenes too that establish the bonds between individual characters in a kind-hearted manner and help make it clear why they all grow to care for another.
Of course, one can’t underestimate what an asset the cast is to this movie as the four leads especially deliver some incredibly noteworthy work. In his first major lead role in a feature role, Kumail Najiani proves to be as capable as an actor as he is as an actor, handling both moments of sharp wit and his more dramatic moments showing his character at his most vulnerable with equal levels of success. He also has great chemistry with Zoe Kazan, these two bounce off each other so effortlessly it’s easy to see why they would eventually get into a relationship together. Kazan brings a lot to their scenes together with the natural way she delivers her characters unique personality, she’s a real find in this movie. As her character’s parents, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter steal the show with some of the funniest moments of the entire motion picture, they’re an absolute hoot.
Director Michael Showalter (who I just learned yesterday was also Coop from Wet Hot American Summer, meaning this guy can make movies as well as engage in training montages!) manages to be a fine choice to direct this film, directing the actors well and subtly making sure the dialogue-heavy nature of the movie doesn’t become repetitive from a visual level in terms of what shots are used as the characters exchange lines. He does a great job bringing the wonderful screenplay by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Owens to life, resulting in a warm-hearted comedy that has a keen eye for the importance of the awkwardness inherent in human interactions. There may have been many duds in terms of comedies in 2017, but worry not folks, The Big Sick is the kind of amazing comedy we’ve been longing for all year, one that’s got so many laughs as well as tons of authentically and thoughtfully realized heartwarming moments.