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The Big Sick

by Glenn Erickson Sep 12, 2017

This modern romantic comedy about stand-up comedians generates a genuine warmth about people, the ones-who-need-people kind. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s comic dramatization of the way they became a couple is a big winner, with heart-tugging performances from Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, and fine characterizations by Holly Hunter, Zenobia Shroff, Ray Romano, and Anupam Kher.


The Big Sick
Blu-ray + DVD
Lionsgate
2017 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 120 min. / Street Date September 19, 2017 / 39.99
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell.
Cinematography: Brian Burgoyne
Film Editor: Robert Nassau
Original Music: Michael Andrews
Written by Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Produced by Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
Directed by
Michael Showalter

 

These days even caustic mainstream comedies are trying to rediscover sentimentality, without being sentimental. The Big Sick succeeds in generating genuine warmth even though it’s set in the middle of stand-up culture, where simple human honesty usually lies beneath layers of sarcasm, self-disgust and post-modern irony. Competing stand-up folk are viciously critical of each other behind each other’s backs, with the excuse that we’re all knowing adults. Besides, to survive one needs to grow a healthy thick skin.

 

The hook that pulled me in with The Big Sick was word of mouth that the film was warmly human and uplifting. And that statement was not followed by a snide reversal, insinuating that honest emotions are for dweebs. I have seen director Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris and even though it’s pretty awkward, it wants to be a straight-up People Movie. The Big Sick goes the distance. If you’re intrigued by the words “warmly human and uplifting” put this aside, avoid the ads and see the picture first.

The show is an adaptation of the writers’ true story, the romance of Kumail Nanjani and Emily Gordon. Kumail plays himself; Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. Talk about a risky movie concept for a relationship.

A Chicago comedy club harbors a cluster of comedians hopeful to be discovered. Chris (Kurt Braunohler) works an unchanging routine, which his friends think is tired, while Mary (Aidy Bryant) keeps trying to perfect her act. Kumail (Kumail Nanjani) is from Pakistan and seems to be working out his ethnic identity issues on stage. Kumail’s friendly candor wins him many dates, but his home situation requires that he resist serious relationships: his parents Azman and Sharmeen (Anupan Kher & Zenobia Shroff) expect him to attend weekly dinners to meet potential arranged-marriage prospects, good Pakistani-Muslim women. They’re counting the days until Kumail abandons his frivolous interest in stand-up.

 

Kumail instead meets physical therapy student Emily (Zoe Kazan). They pretend that their relationship has no future while continuing to see each other steadily. When Kumail finally admits that they can have no future because he won’t be disowned for marrying a non-Muslim, Emily is crushed and furious, and walks out on him. Not much later Kumail learns that Emily is in a hospital fighting for her life against a life-threatening infection. By the time Kumail arrives she is unconscious, and is soon placed in a medically induced coma. Kumail wants to stay even after Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter & Ray Romano) arrive. Beth is not very happy to see Kumail. Emily has shared everything with her, and she can’t believe that a heel like Kumail would want to stick around.

Knowing that the story we’re seeing is true doubles The Big Sick’s impact. Kumail and the ‘real’ Emily experienced an intense modern drama, a sleeping beauty story with no guarantee of a good outcome. As embodied by the vulnerable/feisty Zoe Kazan, Emily goes into her deep sleep furious over Kumail’s betrayal, and is then effectively absent for most of the medical ordeal. The show doesn’t invent an instant happy ending. It recognizes obstacles that can’t be bridged by wishful thinking and happy-speak.

Not just a romance interrupted by a deadly illness, The Big Sick has a lot to say about the realities of ethnic assimilation. Few of us were raised in hermetically sealed ethnic bubbles. When I was a clueless high schooler, a girl I liked said we could talk in school but anything else was a no-go because I wasn’t Jewish. Kumail’s parents are not awful people, simply first-generation immigrants with inalterable beliefs. Kumail pleads, “Why did you come to this country if you weren’t going to accept the country’s standards for your children? (paraphrase)

 

Actually, Kumail’s parents are charming people with a fairly hilarious sense of humor, even Sharmeen when she gives her son a hard time. The ‘surprise’ dinnertime visits by a string of young Muslim women are only superficially funny. Ritual dictates that these women must petition a ‘good’ family to seek a mate, all but carrying documents proving their worth. They aren’t quiet little homebodies, but outgoing, interesting and attractive modern women. The game is inherently humiliating. Hearing that Kumail likes The X Files, one hopeful pretends that she does too.

At Emily’s side, Kumail must weather a rough ‘meet the parents’ period. Beth is hostile, to say the least, and Terry’s initial dismissals are withering. Kumail chooses to stick it out, following his better instincts. Yet if Emily does wake up, the first thing she might do is tell him to go to hell.

Not halfway into the movie, all traces of snark, sarcasm and ‘ironic distance’ are banished. We’re practically in open-heart territory, as in classic fare like The Apartment and Wild River, to name two movies that still send me, after fifty viewings each. The situation is impossible. . . or is it divine?

 

Actor Kumail Nanjiani played a lively but thankless ‘ethnic’ in the aforementioned My Name Is Doris, a film that’s mostly good intentions gone wrong. Here he does what I’ve seen nobody do really well, play himself and not come off as a complete jerk. Stand-up comics really sell themselves and their personalities, and Nanjiani earns our acceptance.

Probably a lot more vulnerable than the real Emily, Zoe Kazan breaks our hearts. I haven’t seen Ms. Kazan’s previous movie appearances, but I’m won over here. She makes Emily into the quintessential Girl Who Didn’t Deserve What She Got. By the cruel laws of modern romance, Emily must play the ‘it’s not serious, ha ha’ game as far as it can be played. When that balloon pops we share her righteous devastation. It doesn’t matter that Kumail’s deception wasn’t premeditated, that he in fact hasn’t realized how deep his feelings are for Emily. The way the happiness drains from Emily’s face is shattering. Any decent guy will be reminded of the girls/women he disappointed before learning how not to be a selfish Jerk. The emotional blow could very well be responsible for Emily’s sickness — believe me, it happens.

The writers Nanjiani and Gordon allow natural dialogue to reveal relationships. None of the supporting cast is given the task of dispensing background information in lame exposition dumps. Fans of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano will not be disappointed, as no false sitcom moments pass between them. Neither are Anupan Kher and Zenobia Shroff’s characters used as sitcom clowns. Although Sharmeen’s weekly matrimonial ambushes are indeed sitcom nightmares, they’re not at all exaggerated. I believe that a real life Sharmeen would act exactly as she does. We know that Kumail is a respectful good guy when he doesn’t roll his eyes or throw fits, but more is at stake than ‘funny stuff at the dinner table Things are expected of him. It is possible to be disowned.

The stand-up performances are seen only in bits and pieces, and none of it is particularly outrageous or profane. Aidy Bryant is a real winner, I believe everything she says. Kurt Braunholer has the unenviable task of playing the least evolved of the bunch. Director Showalter gets full marks for control of tone and emotional effect. Everything is extremely well paced, and no false flags of directorial baloney go up. I thought that Hello, My Name Is Doris was also well directed.

I’m a known softie but I think I have a kryptonite barrier against post-modern hip BS and faux-sentimentality that’s really selling something. I have even less patience for shows that think profanity substitutes for imagination. The Big Sick does include bodily function content that turns me off personally. It’s all but unavoidable today, and I fully realize that flagging it may say more about me than the movie. Yet to me the experience of The Big Sick was overwhelmingly positive. It’s the most enjoyable new film I’ve seen this year.


 

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray + DVD of The Big Sick charmed a lot of viewers last Spring and delighted me as well. A prolonged discussion of presentation quality is unnecessary. As with almost every new major release, the transfer is excellent for image and audio. It’s mostly interiors — the visual style is standard Chicago urban and a large chunk of the show takes place in a hospital.

The generous extras give curious viewers exactly what we want to see. In a commentary and several featurettes, the ‘real’ Kumail and the ‘really real’ Emily V. Gordon recount their real-life ‘meeting sick’ story, eager to express what for all evidence seems a strong relationship. Some of the movie is narrated with visions of a Pakistan that Kumail tries to build his stand-up material around. Enlarging on the ‘here are the real people’ teases in the film’s end credits, we get a good look at the interesting Ms. Gordon, who seems a quite different brand of Feisty than the vulnerable/adorable Emily played by Zoe Kazan. At this point we’re easily fooled, but I felt like I was learning more about admired relatives.

The fun continues with outs and deleted material presented in three different menu items. Some of the outtakes simply show the actors, in character and on film, telling jokes as part of the improv shooting process. The cast is also seen plugging the film in a related stage presentation, sort of an all-star comedy club appearance. After this positive experience I think I’ll be giving more ‘edgy’ new comedies a try.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Sick
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview featurettes: A Personal Journey, The Real Story, 2017 SXSW Film Festival Panel, Cast & Filmmaker Commentary, The Other Stuff, Deleted Scenes, The Bigger Sick: Stick Around for More Laughs.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English and Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 9, 2017
(5519sick)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.