After seeing “The Big Sick” with my family a few weeks ago during its limited release, my mom commented on how refreshing it was to see a movie that had intelligent dialogue and no violence. She made a good point. With all the CGI superhero flicks and action-heavy blockbusters dominating the summer box office, it’s nice to watch a film like “The Big Sick” that’s as smartly written as it is genuinely enjoyable.
Directed by Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”) and produced by rom-com aficionado Judd Apatow (“Trainwreck”), “The Big Sick” retells the very true story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and the unexpected trajectory of his relationship with his wife Emily V. Gordon (played effortlessly by Zoe Kazan, “Ruby Sparks”). The screenplay, written by Nanjiani and the real-life Emily, evokes the best of Nora Ephron’s work — “Sleepless in Seattle” comes to mind — but with an updated and unexpectedly poignant twist.
After the couple meet-cute at a comedy club and begin dating, Kumail faces a conundrum when Emily is put in a medically-induced coma from a lung infection. As Kumail’s worry over his love for the comatose Emily deepens into uncertainty, he grows more enlightened when he awkwardly befriends Emily’s concerned parents Beth (a superb Holly Hunter, “Song to Song”) and Terry (a rugged, funny Ray Romano, “Rob the Mob”). At the same time Kumail grows chummy with his potential in-laws, he avoids the aggressive pull of his pious parents Azmat (Anupam Kher, “Silver Linings Playbook”) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff, “When Harry Tries to Marry”), both of whom attempt to matchmake him with a line of single Pakistani women.
It’s a familiar storyline, sure. The “generational gap”/“cross-culture love” setup is a staple in modern romantic films, from Joel Zwick’s 2002 hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to Mira Nair’s 2006 drama “The Namesake.” But fortunately, that trope fits remarkably well in “The Big Sick.” Showalter, Apatow, Nanjiani and Gordon imbue the story with a sensitive look at the fragility of long-term relationships and how the roles of culture and compatibility play into those relationships.
The sheer dynamism of Nanjiani’s lead performance is convincing enough to see “The Big Sick.” Hysterically deadpan in one moment, adorably romantic the next, Nanjiani makes for a confident and admirable romantic lead. Kazan too offers a wonderful, nuanced performance, breathing life into a character who’s only given a little screen time. Her scenes, particularly two heartbreaking ones in the film’s third act, radiate with such subtle realness that she almost seemed too perfect to be cast as Nanjiani’s wife.
Because it’s an Apatow production, “The Big Sick” both benefits and suffers from the “Trainwreck” director’s trademarks. It’s a witty, vulgar adult rom-com that’s unafraid to be dramatic at times and defies genre clichés by fleshing its characters out into three-dimensional, complex beings. At the same time, the film stagnates in its pacing, clocking in at a bloated 124 minutes, which could easily be sized down by a few sequences (Kumail’s escapades with his comedy buddies aren’t all that interesting, for instance). What’s intriguing, though, is that the biggest flaw in “The Big Sick” is almost unrecognizable.
A few major online criticisms of “The Big Sick” have recently mentioned that the film portrays the Pakistani women Kumail reluctantly meets as undesirable, positioning his love interest Emily instead as more likable. These criticisms are important and valid in challenging the Hollywoodized representation of cross-cultural love, especially since some films and TV shows are guilty of making minority characters seem “good” and “wholesome” in order to appease white audiences. However, it’s important to also remember how “The Big Sick” is rooted in a true love story and that it need not be twisted for the sake of fitting a progressive criteria.
No doubt, it’s a sticky situation. There’s a lot more I could say about this issue (perhaps in another article), but I mention this issue in this review regardless in order to engage in this dialogue, even about movies as seemingly harmless as “The Big Sick.” Still, given the blistering sensory overload of popcorn movies this summer, “The Big Sick” stands out for its infectious appeal.