Big on laughs but also tenderness
THE BIG SICK (M, 120 MINS), DIRECTED BY MICHAEL SHOWALTER,
In the early 2000s, Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself onscreen and looks just a shade too old for the role) was a struggling stand-up comic and part-time cab driver living in Chicago.
One night, after a gig, he met Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan – looking a lot like the real-life Emily) and the pair became very swiftly and happily smitten with each other.
But Kumail is the son of strictly Shia Muslim Pakistani parents who couldn’t imagine any marriage for him other than one they would arrange.
Frightened by the prospect of being disowned by his family, Kumail chose to not tell them about Emily. And then, in short order, the couple broke up and Emily became deathly ill and was put in a medically induced coma.
Knowing all that – it’s all in the trailer – will you believe me when I tell you that The Big Sick is by far the funniest film I’ve seen in 2017. Beneath the fusillade of beautifully crafted jokes, this is also one of the tenderest, sweetest and most honestly heartbreaking films for years. It’s an old truism of scriptwriters that making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is hard. The Big Sick, which was written by Kumail and Emily, achieves both, often, and in my case, at the same time.
The dialogue and situations unerringly pierce the grief and slow-burning dread of the hospital scenes, but never in a way that feels contrived or trite. These are people moving through a tragedy, it’s just that a lot of genuinely funny and perfectly observed stuff happens along the way.
Helping immeasurably is the Act 2 arrival of Emily’s parents, played, with unimprovable casting, by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. The pair of them have brilliant chemistry and timing to die for, in the service of a couple of sub-plots that add complexity and an unexpected thorniness to a film that was already bouncing between genres.
A small cluster of real-life American comics make up Kumail’s friends and cohorts (it’s a running gag of sorts that the stand-up comedy routines in The Big Sick are far less funny than a lot of what is said off-stage). A considerable part of the film’s achievement is that every character on screen seems real and fleshed out.
There are no caricatures or stereotypes here. From Kumail’s family, his doofus of a flatmate, right down to an obnoxious fratboy heckler, everyone feels like they have a life off screen ingrained in their pores for us to see. Even the montaged parade of ‘‘suitable wives’’ that Kumail’s parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) arrange are treated with dignity and intelligence.
Director Michael Showalter keeps the film-making low key and unshowy, but the performances he has coaxed out of this cast are uniformly wonderful.
God, I adored this film. The Big Sick is warm, human, insightful and compassionate to its marrow. I came out of the screening with my faith restored on a number of levels. Yes, a small, beautifully written film can still find an audience at a multiplex. And that a small, beautifully written film can also be funny in a way that most mainstream comedies never even get close to. – Graeme Tuckett
Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan star in The Big Sick.