“The Big Sick”
I’d like to say right up front that I don’t like the title for this week’s film, the beautiful, hilarious, and touchingly sweet romance, “The Big Sick.” I’m not sure what I would have called the movie — I mean “The Big Sick” does get at the life-threatening illness that takes up the middle third of the film, but still. The title conjures up a bunch of gross out humor and/or vomiting scenes that this film definitely doesn’t contain.
I guess all that is to say that if the title of this movie is your barrier to entry, ignore it. Move past it and settle in to one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
The story concerns a young, struggling comedian in Chicago named Kumail Nanjiani and the woman he meets at a club one night. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Nanjiani is a real person and that’s his real name. He really is a comedian, and this movie is a true, if somewhat enhanced, story.
Having immigrated from Pakistan when he was young, Kumail struggles with trying to balance the traditional values of his parents and his wholly American lifestyle. His parents want him to settle down with a nice Pakistani girl, and, true to the custom of their country, have been desperately trying to arrange a marriage for him.
Kumail, however, has no interest in that particular arrangement, and has even drifted from the faith. The life of a young comedian is a pretty secular one, and it’s no surprise that Kumail’s parents are not on board with his particular career choice.
One night, while performing, our hero has an interaction with a young woman, Emily, who has the temerity to “woo hoo” him during his set. Teasing her later at the bar, Kumail manages to get a date, and romance blossoms. Some of the sweetest, most endearing moments set to film take place over the next couple of months, where a friendly relationship grows into something more.
Inevitably, things have to get bad before they can get really good. Emily finds the box of headshots of prospective partners that Kumail’s mother has been trotting out for the last year or two. At each of these awkward meetings, each girl presents Kumail with a photograph and resume outlining their strengths as a potential mate. Why he doesn’t just throw them out is anyone’s guess, but Emily rightly deduces that Kumail is having issues squaring his parents and his white girlfriend, about whom they know nothing. She’s done and storms out in a huff.
It’s not until weeks later that our hero gets a call from a panicked roommate who’s just left Emily at a hospital emergency room with a strange kind of flu. All her friends have college finals, so can Kumail just come and sit with her until they release her? It’s an odd request, but off he goes. Once there, he finds that Emily’s condition is rapidly deteriorating, and watches in horror as the doctors have to put her in a medically induced coma in order to halt a rapidly advancing infection in her lungs.
It’s at this point that movie shifts gears and becomes about Kumail and a new relationship, that being one with Emily’s terrified parents, played perfectly by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. This section of the film really struck home with me. Close to twenty years ago, my wife had to be hospitalized for a week with severe pneumonia. We were young and fairly newly married and navigating the hospital system with her distraught mother in tow was not fun. But, as much as my mother-in-law and I might have taken our tensions out on each other, I remember also moments of bonding as we both cared for someone we loved.
The movie gets this heartfully and often hilariously right. Romano and Hunter, the only actual stars in the film, do an amazing job. So much about the film feels honest and real, and the relationship between those two, and then with Nanjiani as well, is perfectly constructed. Likewise, the relationship between Nanjiani and his Pakistani family is both true and sweet and difficult as well. So much of “The Big Sick” is really about how people can learn to be decent to each other even in the worst of situations.
“The Big Sick” is amazingly co-written by Nanjiani and the real-life Emily, and is beautifully directed by Michael Showalter, of “Wet Hot American Summer” and “The State.” So much about this film works, but the best part is the magnificent chemistry between Kumail Nanjiani and actress Zoe Kazan, who plays Emily. The two work perfectly together.
On the movie radio show I co-host we talk about on-screen chemistry this week, and, as usual, I take a lot of flack for my, perhaps unreasonable, love of “The Adjustment Bureau” and the pairing of Emily Blunt and Matt Damon. This is perhaps a deep dive for those of you who might go first to such movie power couples as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, or Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but I maintain that the stars of “The Adjustment Bureau” have some of the best chemistry of the last couple of decades.
That is, until “The Big Sick.” This is a pair that you root for, that you don’t get tired of hanging out with. And when the inevitable mid-movie break-up comes, one you know is going to come because this is a romantic comedy, after all, you actually care. It hurts when Kumail and Emily break up, that ability to make me that invested in the characters is something I haven’t seen in this kind of movie for a long time.
“The Big Sick” may not be playing at a theater near you, but do yourself a favor and seek it out. You won’t be sorry.
“The Big Sick” is rated R for language.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.