The Big Sick, More Like The Big Cure
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon tell their origin story in a comedy that feels like so much more.
It’s impossible, at least for me, to separate the fact that the early morning Sundance screening of The Big Sick was taking place concurrently with the Women’s March on Washington and the sister march happening up the hill in downtown Park City. Over the course of one morning, it feels as if a particular segment of American society – an ideological movement to which this author belongs – took an important emotional turn toward action, resistance, and the hope that comes with togetherness. It was under these circumstances that I was first introduced to a film that, despite its name, is very much a cure for what ails a bruised soul.
To be honest, this isn’t what I expected from the collaboration between producer Judd Apatow and director Michael Showalter. Both have a propensity for making comedy with heart – Apatow with This is 40 and Showalter with Hello, My Name is Doris – but neither have quite been associated with a movie that does it such a profound manner as this. The x-factor in the emotional success of The Big Sick is in its writing duo, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. The two, who were married in 2007, construct a romantic comedy worthy of Grant and Garbo out of their own origin story as a couple. The profoundly witty film is as interested in the imperfections of love as it is the gee-whiz charm of getting together and falling in love. It also explores the cultural battle the couple waged against Nanjiani’s traditional Pakistani upbringing. And as we’ve seen from other recent comedic successes – Aziz Ansari’s Master of None comes to mind – there’s an honesty to the entire thing that allows the audience to connect in unexpected ways. A thoughtfulness that draws us in. You don’t need to know that it’s based on a true story before seeing this movie, you feel it.
The Big Sick also benefits from a cast that flexes its creative muscle in concert and achieves a chemistry that feels natural. Proving that there is no substitute for his delivery, Nanjiani plays himself and shines in all the ways you’d expect and then some you might not. It’s possible that many will be drawn to this movie as fans of his stand-up or his work on Silicon Valley, expecting him to deliver deadpan cultural and situational observations. There’s plenty of that. But there’s also significant portions of the film where the emotional weight of the story rests on his shoulders. In these scenes, his calm, thoughtful demeanor provides a canvas upon which emotion flourishes. Because sometimes an emotional performance doesn’t require hysterics – there’s equal power in a quiet approach.
In the role of Emily, we are easily charmed by Zoe Kazan. She matches wits with Kumail at every turn, then provides a sharp, honest portrayal of a woman who has gone through a traumatic life experience. You see, the film revolves not only around their relationship but around a period in Emily’s life in which she ends up with a mysterious infection that lands her in a medically induced coma. This development brings her parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) into the picture to create further tension for Kumail. It’s here that the film finds its rhythm, as Romano and Hunter breathe further life into both the wit and heft of the film. Especially Holly Hunter, who steps into a situation with two very talented comedic men and steals the entire show. Have you ever wanted to see Holly Hunter as a sassy southern woman who gets into a screaming match with a frat bro over a racial slur? This is your movie.
Which brings me back to my original point: this is your movie. Well, it is if you’re feeling down or apathetic or distraught or in a stasis. There’s a liveliness and emotional range to it that helps its audience feel things. Not only the happy things, but the range of emotions that come with a strong connection to another human being. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that insufferable saying, “All the feels.” That is, with out any hint of pretense. We can count it among our essential comedies of this era, the films (and shows) that fool us with more traditional romcom packaging and reward us with a lot of heart. For those familiar with the story, or the work of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, a lot of this might not come as a surprise. They are very talented. And their movie is as good as you might imagine. Only, there’s a little more to it that makes it special. From their own story to their excellent script to the steady hand of a comedy vet like Showalter, their origin story sings. It offers us not a sickness, but a cure for what ails our weary hearts.