REVIEW: The Big Sick (2017)

Director: Michael Showalter

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano

Running time: 124 minutes

4-stars

After being heckled by her at one of his shows, ambitious Chicago comedian Kumail (Nanjiani) falls for zany Psychology grad student Emily (Kazan). Their romance is soon scuppered by cultural roadblocks and Kumail’s unwillingness to break tradition; however, when Emily is admitted to hospital with a life threatening illness, he is given an unexpected shot to redeem himself.

I’ll be honest with y’all: I usually give romcoms a hard time. As a film reviewer who clearly thinks he is better than he is (and naturally thinks therefore that certain movie genres are unjustifiably beneath him) I get all snobby and aggressive at their very utterance. I slag them off repeatedly behind their back (never to their face – I mean, have you seen the size of Gerard Butler?!), and constantly berate them for their predictable conventions, recycled gags, and dialogue that no one in real life would ever say. Like. Ever.

So, you can imagine when I saw the “funniest romcom of the decade” praises plastered all over the poster for the Michael Showalter directed The Big Sick, I wasn’t holding my breath. BUT, this is also the Judd Apatow produced The Big Sick, and anyone involved in giving us Superbad and Bridesmaids is, in my book, worthy of being given a run out. And, to the surprise of no one more so than I, The Big Sick is actually really funny, and just really, really darn good.

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Ever been asked who you think would play you in a film about your life?

Well, apparently for Kumail Nanjiani, that would be himself. Co-written by him and real-life wife Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan – I guess Gordon didn’t make the cut to be Nanjiani’s on screen soul mate), The Big Sick tells the story of the couple’s blossoming, and eventually tested romance – with a bit of fictional fleshing out for good measure – when Emily falls seriously ill.

He’s an up and coming stand-up comedian living in Chicago who wants to make it to the big time; she’s a quirky, sarcastic young woman who comes along and rocks his world. He is a Pakistani Muslim from a traditional Muslim family; she is not. All sounds rather familiar, right?

Wrong.

The Big Sick may have all the usual ingredients to make the bland, stodgy genre bake, but uses those same ingredients to make a richly bitter-sweet showstopper with very little by way of artificial colours and flavourings. The opening flirty exchanges between the film’s two leads lures us into a false sense of conventional genre security, before the narrative is intelligently flipped it on its head once the film delivers its narrative sucker punch. From there, Emily, in fact, features very little; her narrative presence existing almost exclusively through the actions of Kumail, and through the introduction of Emily’s parents (Romano and Hunter). As a result, Najiani, Gordon and Showalter give us a romcom in which the ‘rom’ is used refreshingly sparingly; its primary role being the adhesive that brings together the film’s bold explorations of cultural tensions, family structures, and both the uniting and divisive impact serious illness can cause.

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Pitched at just the right level so that it never feels exploitative, despite getting pretty black at times (we’re talking a laugh-out-loud 9/11 one liner, and a smartphone fingerprint identification gag), the film’s darker undertones are peppered with sharply timed, dry humour that, in the film’s familiar opening third, feels charming and witty, but once Emily’s illness delivers its weighty blow, manifests as an effective means of exploring the thematic avenues the film starts to take. The jokes perhaps don’t always hit the intended heights, particularly the seemingly ad-lib berating backstage between Kumail and his fellow comedians; but are almost always made up for soon after – or, more accurately, whenever Emily’s parents – the bumbling, dopey Terry and feisty, pocket-rocket Beth – are on screen.

The Big Sick is an impressively realised contemporary tale of perspective and self-discovery that is both uplifting and heart-breaking; both hilarious and shocking in equal measure. Breathing organic life into a genre terrain thought to have long been infertile, Nanjiani, Gordon and co. deliver one of the neatest romantic comedy packages we’ve seen in a long while.

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