The Big Sick & Film Club deals

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - By Demetrios Matheou

IT’S rare to come across a ro­man­tic com­edy that gen­uinely feels fresh, which is de­void of the usual tics, sign­posts and stock sup­port­ing char­ac­ters of boy meets girl, boy loses girl. The Big Sick is one of those, a win­ningly sweet, funny, orig­i­nal story of a ro­mance that gets there in the end, even if first the girl has to fall into a coma.

And while that last point sounds like a pre­pos­ter­ous idea that would only hap­pen in a film, it’s not. For the film’s premise and the ob­sta­cles faced by its young lovers are based on the real-life ex­pe­ri­ence of its co-writ­ers, Ku­mail Nan­jiani and Emily V Gor­don. This really was the roller­coaster be­gin­nings of their life to­gether.

In Chicago, Pak­istani-born Ku­mail (Nan­jiani, play­ing a ver­sion of him­self) is an as­pir­ing stand-up co­me­dian, per­form­ing most nights in a club while work­ing as an Uber driver to pay the bills. He shares an apart­ment with a fel­low co­me­dian, but reg­u­larly vis­its his family for din­ner, their meals in­vari­ably in­ter­rupted by sin­gle Pak­istani women, in­vited by Ku­mail’s mother Sharmeen (Zenoba Shroff), whose pri­mary am­bi­tion is for her younger son’s ar­ranged mar­riage.

But Ku­mail is not a de­vout Mus­lim. After psy­chol­ogy stu­dent Emily (Zoe Kazan) jovially heck­les from the au­di­ence one night, he catches her at the bar, de­ploy­ing his vari­a­tion of a chat-up line – writ­ing her name in Urdu on a nap­kin. A gen­tly comic courtship en­sues. And then the ro­mance gets se­ri­ous.

Or does it? Ku­mail may re­sist his family’s ex­pec­ta­tions, including for prayer, but he doesn’t tell them about his re­la­tion­ship, know­ing that to do so would have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. When Emily finds out that she’s been a se­cret for months, she doesn’t re­act well.

At this point there’s more than enough for a film. The pres­sures on young Mus­lims to live tra­di­tional Mus­lim lives is poignantly demon­strated, not just for Ku­mail, who com­plains to his par­ents that “the rules don’t make sense to me” and won­ders why they brought him to Amer­ica if they don’t wish him to lead “an Amer­i­can life”, but also for the young women de­posited next to him at din­ner. A T the same time, Ku­mail’s stand-up gives the film a like­able and at times bit­ing con­text, from the back­stage back­stab­bing of the des­per­ate co­me­di­ans, none of whose rou­tines is par­tic­u­larly funny, to the red­neck heck­ler who tells the Pak­istani Amer­i­can to “go back to Isis”.

But then Emily is rushed to hospi­tal with a mys­te­ri­ous in­fec­tion, and the film takes on an­other di­men­sion, as Ku­mail and Emily’s par­ents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter, Ray Ro­mano) find them­selves hav­ing to cope, to­gether, with the emer­gency.

True or not, the plot would feel over-egged were it not constantly bought to life by small de­tails: Ku­mail’s cigar box, full of the pho­tos of his prospec­tive Pak­istani brides, and de­cid­edly dodgy-look­ing for the girl­friend who comes across it; his ex­cru­ci­at­ing one-man show about life in Pak­istan, which bores his au­di­ence with the finer points of cricket; his Bol­ly­wood-lov­ing father’s en­dear­ing habit of break­ing into song (beau­ti­fully played by Anu­pam Kher); Beth and Terry’s love-hate bick­er­ing.

Like many films about co­me­di­ans, it’s also the case here – quite de­lib­er­ately – that the best hu­mour hap­pens off­stage. Ro­mano, in par­tic­u­lar, is an in­vet­er­ate, dead­pan scen­estealer as the awk­ward but wellmean­ing Terry.

It’s not with­out its is­sues: Kazan is such an ap­peal­ing pres­ence that there’s a hole in the film when her char­ac­ter is in­dis­posed; and at times emo­tions are need­lessly over­stated. But even in this it rings true, for how easy is it for any­one to edit their own life?

Zoe Kazan as Emily and Ku­mail Nan­jiani as Ku­mail in The Big Sick

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