Film Review: The Big Sick (2017) Dir. Michael Showalter
Written by Belle McIntyre
I was initially wary of this film which was getting such high praise, fearful that it was going to be too cute by half and that I would sound curmudgeonly or surly if I did not like it. My worries were misplaced. I really liked it. A lot. And while it is loaded with charm and quite funny, it is not excessively either of those things. And, to be sure, all of the ingredients are there for an over-the-top send up of the the mixed race relationship and overweening parents genre. It is much to Showalter’s credit that he eschews the ripe opportunities for crowd-pleasing overkill. Instead he has created a very human, credible and appealing relationship film.
Our unlikely romantic lead, Kumail, (Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling stand-up comedian whose main income is driving for Uber. When he picks up Emily (Zoe Kazan) and they hook-up awkwardly that same night and then agree that this was a one-off and there will be no future contact, it feels fairly contemporary and believable. However, they do not stick to their guns and one more encounter leads to another until they are actually in a relationship. Even though Emily is in grad school studying to be a therapist, and has her own very nice apartment and Kumail shares a crash pad with a dorky roommate and sleeps on a mattress on the floor, they nonetheless seem well-suited and compatible.
The only difference being, (and it is a big one) that Emily is fine with Kumail, as he is (a Muslim Uber driver). On the other hand, Kumail, is faking out his conservative family by pretending to be a devout Muslim (he is not), planning to go to law school (not be a stand-up comedian), and be willing to entertain the notion of an arranged marriage to a Pakistani Muslim girl. So Kumail is living a lie to both his parents and Emily. The only way Emily finds out about Kumail’s duplicity is when she lobbies for him to meet her parents. His evasiveness forces his hand and he finally confesses that his parents do not know about her and that if they did he would lose his whole family. Emily is devastated and outraged and immediately dumps him. Kumail does not seem overly upset by her reaction and is possibly relieved to not have to carry on with the deception. He may have accepted it as an inevitability since he has not really considered the details of his future or the consequences of his actions. He is behaving like a typical self-centered guy with a case of arrested development.
When Emily is suddenly hospitalized with a critical mysterious illness shortly after the breakup Kumail ends up, by default, being the closest thing to family, in the eyes of the hospital, who have to get signed permissions for every action they take. The most dramatic action is putting her into a medically-induced coma in order to save her life. He reluctantly has to agree and assume responsibility for possibly the first time in his life by signing off on that. Imagine the surprise of Emily’s parents, who are current with the state of the relationship, since Emily tells them everything, when they get the call from Kumail informing them of their daughter’s state. As soon as they arrive at the hospital they dismiss Kumail, figuring that he will be hiving off again, having done his duty. However, it seems that the light is beginning to dawn on this vaguely clueless dude, that there may be something more here that he has failed to grasp. So he does not leave and he keeps coming back much to the amazement and annoyance of her parents.
The real drama begins with the entry of Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), another mismatched couple who clearly found a way to bridge the gap. Terry is a real New Yorker and Beth is a small town Southern girl, a feisty little firecracker, who is way smarter and wiser than her background would have predicted. She is fiercely protective of her adored Emily and she is just as offended and hurt by Kumail’s betrayal as Emily. This whole section of the film focuses on Kumail’s evolving relationship with Beth and Terry and provides many comic episodes as the three of them deal with the pain and anxiety of waiting and not-knowing and being victimized by the tyranny of the medical bureaucracy. The coping mechanisms which are employed are convincingly familiar and often hilarious and, needless to say, allow forsome genuine bonding. Imagine Emily’s amazement when she is finally released from her coma and awakes to this new reality. The adjustment is not smooth. But it is sensitively and honestly written and portrayed.
Kumail’s relationship with his family is only saved by his taking a stand and rejecting their rejection of him. In spite of their conservative views they are warm and likeable. The weekly family dinners which always feature an unexpected caller who “just happened to be passing by” is inevitably a marriageable Pakistani Muslim girl of their acquaintance, are handled with deadpan humor. The father, Azmat (Anupam Kher) is a typical father playing at being a patriarch. His beautiful, elegant wife Sharmeen (Zenobia Shereff), is as determined, in her way, as Beth to try to make sure their offspring are happy and successful. But they both have to learn the inevitable lesson of “the never to be forgiven debt to the womb.”
The really great thing about this film and why it feels so authentic is because it is the actual story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, who are (spoiler alert) married and wrote the script based on their story. So I dare anyone not to like this film. And this is coming from a confirmed curmudgeon.