Friday, July 7, 2017

The Big Sick: Just what the doctor ordered!

The Big Sick (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.7.17

Stand-up comics have a significant advantage, when it comes to autobiographical projects; they’ve fine-tuned such material during years of comedy club appearances.

As their relationship blossoms, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) spend
more and more time together, even as both continue to insist — with diminishing
conviction — that this "isn't anything serious."
The results can be terrific, as demonstrated by (for example) Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays.

The Big Sick is a similarly delightful experience: by turns sweet, funny and poignant, with a gently instructive cross-cultural moral that we desperately need these days.

The film stars Pakistani-American actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani, perhaps best recognized from his starring role on HBO’s Silicon Valley. He co-wrote The Big Sick with his wife, Emily V. Gordon; the film depicts their real-life courtship, which started when, as a grad student, she attended one of his stand-up appearances at a Chicago comedy club.

The relationship gets off to a shaky start. Although Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) enjoy each other’s company, neither is looking for a relationship. She’s focused on finishing a master’s degree in couples and family counseling, in order to begin a career as a therapist; he’s enduring the grueling, grinding ordeal of trying to hone a stand-up set in front of frequently unforgiving audiences.

Then there’s the other issue. She’s a modern American white gal; he belongs to a conservative Muslim family, with parents — Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) — who expect him to enter into a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. Like they did, and like his older brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) did, with his wife Fatima (Shenaz Treasury).

Kumail faithfully has dinner once a week with his family: chaotic affairs with (in his own words) “five different conversations going on, people talking over each other, and everyone’s very loud.” Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that Kumail’s mother always sets a sixth place at the table, in case an eligible young Pakistani woman “happens” to drop in. Which one always does.

Bearing a photo and résumé. Which Kumail dutifully takes back to his apartment, once dinner concludes, and tosses into a cigar box laden with similar profiles.

So yes, there’s a strong echo of Greek Wedding, albeit from a Pakistani perspective. But there’s also a significant difference, because Kumail can’t work up the courage to tell his parents about Emily (whereas she has shared everything about him with her folks). He’s paralyzed by anecdotes about adult children and other relations banished from their families, for similar “transgressions.”

Unfortunately, Kumail also doesn’t share his lack of candor with Emily: a nagging secret that eats at him, as their didn’t-want-a-relationship blossoms into a genuine love affair.

This can only end badly ... but Kumail can’t imagine how badly.

Neither can we. About which, I’ll say no more.

Nanjiani gives his performance an endearing, puppy-dog quality that makes him sympathetic, despite his casual relationship with honesty. Kumail is a work in progress, much like the material he’s struggling to refine into a sharp, 5-minute act. He’s quick with a quip, and we recognize the jokey, arm’s-length superficiality with which he handles his parents. (We’ve all been there.)

At the same time, Kumail is keenly aware of his own failings: of helplessly digging these emotional holes deeper. At times, Nanjiani uncorks painful displays of silent chagrin; his disappointment is palpable.

Kazan’s Emily is perky, enticing and slightly mysterious, with a mischievous gaze that makes her irresistible. She has a quick smile that can melt just as rapidly into confusion, annoyance or outright anger. Emily is once burned, twice shy; Kazan gives her a protective shell that the young woman clearly wishes to shed on Kumail’s behalf, but she can’t quite decide if he’s worth it.

Emily is defined by this uncertainty: a characteristic that Kazan presents with conviction.

This film is an affectionate and shrewdly insightful tribute to families, friends and lovers, written and presented with an unerring eye and ear for the little intimacies that bond people, and the unexpected outbursts that can kill a happy mood in the blink of an eye. It’s not merely a matter of Nanjiani and Gordon understanding themselves, and their intimates; they also know how to depict these events in a way that’s entertaining and often hilarious.

Not to mention culturally illuminating. Although Kumail’s family dinners are choreographed for the broad humor that characterizes the disconnect with his parents’ conservative values, they’re never held up for ridicule. Indeed, there’s a regal grace to Shroff’s portrayal of Sharmeen, particularly when she proudly introduces each “surprise” guest to her embarrassed — but amiably tolerant — son.

The problem, of course, is that each of these hopeful young women arrives with her own expectations, and we eventually recognize the unspoken cruelty of Kumail’s constant rejections, no matter how politely handled. Nor do Nanjiani and Gordon shy from this implication; this is one of many instances when their script shows its teeth.

This story — and Nanjiani himself — aren’t afraid to acknowledge that, at this stage of his life, Kumail is deeply flawed. Failure to act, to take a stand, can be just as unkind as overt hostility.

Kumail connects far better his other “family”: the friends similarly trying to build careers in stand-up, each struggling to be noticed by comedy festival talent scouts. These hopefuls include CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant) and Chris (Kurt Braunohler), the latter also sharing Kumail’s apartment. The bond between these four feels strong, and with good reason; they’re friends in real life, with the split-second timing developed from their own stand-up careers.

Burnham and Bryant are self-assured, with the bravado that comes from a certainty that they will — eventually, but absolutely — make it. Braunohler draws the short straw: Chris has neither the God-given talent nor the necessary fire ... but he doesn’t yet perceive this.

The backstage riffing that takes place between this quartet is fast, furious and funny; it’s also sharply perceptive. They know each other better than most friends, good comedic material invariably being built from the baring of one’s soul. They can be their own harshest critics, with no hard feelings; they also can offer solace during moments of crisis, as when Kumail needs help figuring out what to do about his messed-up off-stage life.

We don’t meet Emily’s parents until the second act, and they add a tempestuous emotional tornado to the already fraught dynamic. Holly Hunter plays Beth as a pint-sized spitfire with a don’t-mess-with-me-or-mine ferocity: a mother tiger who memorably unsheathes her claws during a hilarious encounter at one of Kumail’s club performances.

But Beth isn’t solely fire and brimstone; Hunter laces her with effervescent wit and shrewd judgment, often conveying considerable emotional depth with a turn of the head and narrowing of her eyes. She’s a consummate actress with an astonishing gift for disappearing into her performances; in this case, she simply becomes Emily’s mother.

Although Ray Romano is a hoot as Emily’s father, Terry, he’s less successful at creating a fresh character. Romano can’t help being himself, and Terry doesn’t feel that different from the “self” that he played on TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond and Parenthood. Which is not to say that he’s unsatisfying as Terry; Romano credibly handles the wild emotional swings prompted by this tempestuous saga.

More crucially, the film handles the relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents — an initially prickly distance that blossoms into mutual respect and affection — with endearing sensitivity. Indeed, although the bond between Kumail and Emily is the heart of this film, the developing intimacy between Kumail, Beth and Terry is equally touching.

Director Michael Showalter impressed us a few years back, with his consummate handling of Hello, My Name Is Doris, another sharply insightful dramedy that drew finely tuned performances from its stars (and for which Sally Field should have earned an Academy Award nomination). Showalter does the same here, eliciting fine — and, in a few cases, exemplary — work from his varied ensemble cast.

A lot of captivating and dramatically diverse dynamics are juggled throughout this film — Kumail and Emily, Kumail and his family, Kumail and his stand-up buddies — and Showalter crafts each with grace, humor and warmth. The result is a charming romantic saga — with one of the sharpest final lines I’ve heard in awhile — that’s destined to win a treasured spot in home libraries.

(Despite having one of the worst titles ever. I mean, seriously? They couldn’t come up with something better? It doesn’t even roll off the tongue. “What are you seeing tonight?” “The Big Sick.” “Say what?” Sheesh!)


  1. Love your reviews. You had this one spot on....but what WAS the final line?

  2. Thanks for the kind words. But please ... I'd never spoil everybody else's fun, by revealing the final line. :-)