Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Vella Lovell
Plot: Kumail (played by himself) is a Pakistani stand-up, who spends most of his life dodging his parents’ attempt at arranging a marriage, while dating a white, non-Muslim woman, Emily (Kazan). Then, Emily falls into an unexplainable coma.
The Big Sick is one of the more interesting comedies of the year, mainly because it is based on a real-life story. Written by Emily V. Gordon, the female lead character in this movie (which does give away the ending), this is a vaguely true account of her relationship with a Pakistani stand-up comedian and actor. It works on two levels. For one, everything that happens here feels so real and visceral. Every sad obstacle in the movie has added impact as you realise you are watching a dramatization of something that actually happened. Every killer twist has added weight that makes The Big Sick hard to peel your eyes away from. At the same time, this is hardly a true story that struggles with a promising premise but a resolution that gets away from. The events of Nanjiani’s and V. Gordon’s early relationship is so surreal, so extraordinary and, most importantly, cinematic that it does feel that we are watching an above average hospital drama, focused more on the patient side of the story. And with V. Gordon willing to not only put her tragedy onto the big screen, but script the whole affair herself, we are awarded with one of the most heart-warming movies of the year.
For a long time, V. Gordon doesn’t even need to focus on the tragedy. There turns out to be plenty of mileage in the backstory to their dating. Kumail Nanjiani, teamed with comedy producing legend, Judd Apatow, and a director with a fair history in winning laughs, Michael Showalter, have plenty of fun in the world of Muslim arranged marriage. Nanjiani makes a perfectly charismatic lead, able to poke Apatow-esque levels of fun at the whole concept without the feeling that the satire is cheap or offensive. One of the benefits of the true story angle is that the arranged marriage skits feel honest, making them so much more intriguing to behold. As Nanjiani exhaustedly struggles with a religion forced onto him for so long, he was no idea whether he even believes in it or not, he also has to deal with his mother finding weak excuses to introduce him to single Pakistani women. There is a depth here that makes the foreign concept of arranged marriages believable to other cultures. The idea of marrying someone set up by your families, before really meeting them, is a notion hard to wrap your head around for a lot of non-Muslim viewers. However, here, Nanjiani feels like he is mocking his particular family than the idea itself. It comes across as a blind date system, where the whole family is invited to participate. You partially feel for the poor women who have to awkwardly win over a man, while meeting the family for the first time. Cue poor X Files gags that fall flat over the dinner table. At the same time, Vella Lovell stars as one of the candidates for Nanjiani’s hand in marriage, who actually makes the whole system work. She is charismatic, funny and endearing, the kind of woman that would be snapped up, if Nanjiani wasn’t secretly dating someone else. You feel for the character trapped in the arranged marriage system, the rigid structure weighing down on her. There is also some good material on Nanjiani simply being a Pakistani comic in America. He has to deal with his fair share of racism, some malicious, some accidental. The joke of the film sees Nanjiani try to win over Emily’s father with a sarcastic remark about 9/11. While it goes down like a lead balloon on-screen, audiences will likely be speechless at the sheer audacity that Nanjiani manages to get away with using nothing more than a confident delivery.
And then Emily falls ill. This film could have worked with just the Pakistani angle, but the shocking events of The Big Sick make this film go from a good comedy to a great drama. Just after a break-up over Nanjiani’s restrictive culture, Emily falls into a coma for a reason none of the doctors can explain. Nanjiani becomes the only person who can get to the hospital as a carer, meaning that he is forced to make the decision to put her into a medically-induced coma. The rest of the film sees Nanjiani desperate to find out what will happen to his ex-girlfriend, while battling with her parents, played magnificently by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. While Nanjiani is an excellent lead and Zoe Kazan continues her trend of playing believable, charismatic love interests, the performances only truly take off when the comedy heavyweights get there. Ray Romano has a tired glibness to his performance, a kind heart buried underneath an outdated view of the world. And Hunter is sublime, as a grieving mother who goes from pleasantly embracing alcoholic relief to bursting into a rage-filled explosion of her daughter’s condition. Nanjiani stands back, letting the actors do their thing, as they are both antagonist to the story, but sympathetic due to their crippling grief. This is a situation so horrible that you cannot imagine the character arc going beneath the surface. It is suggested that there is so much more to Romano’s automatic politeness and Hunter’s cruelty, in their emotional boiling pot of a crisis. And again, the bonus effect of this all being based on something that actually happened takes the sting to new levels. Perhaps the star of the show remains Emily V. Gordon herself for managing to bear her soul so willingly in a script that takes such a grim chapter of her own life and creating it into a movie that entertains, shocks and makes us laugh.
Final Verdict: An honest and entertaining account of arranged marriage in the Pakistani culture and a real harrowing experience for the screenwriter.