The Big Sick

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - DAN LYBARGER

The Big Sick is sup­posed to be the (al­most) true story of ac­tor-comic Ku­mail Nan­jiani (Sil­i­con Val­ley) and writer-pro­ducer Emily V. Gor­don’s re­la­tion­ship. Thank­fully, it’s also a charm­ing, warm and fre­quently funny movie re­gard­less of whether it would past muster with the myth-bust­ing on­line Snopes.com crew.

It prob­a­bly doesn’t hurt that Nan­jiani and Gor­don have an un­usual, if not unique, re­la­tion­ship. In ad­di­tion to the dif­fi­cul­ties most cou­ples en­counter, the two have also had to face some cul­tural bar­ri­ers that not only break up cou­ples but even pre­vent their unions from ever start­ing.

Nan­jiani plays Ku­mail, an Uber driver who’s also try­ing to launch a standup ca­reer. His Pak­istani im­mi­grant fam­ily doesn’t think that ei­ther of his pro­fes­sions have much of a fu­ture and would like him to find a steady, pres­ti­gious white col­lar job and marry a nice Pak­istani girl.

To en­sure the lat­ter, his mother Sharmeen (Zeno­bia Shroff) in­ter­rupts ev­ery meal Ku­mail has at home by “spon­ta­neously”

in­tro­duc­ing one of po­ten­tially le­gions of Desi Mus­lims who just hap­pens to be liv­ing in the Chicago area.

In lesser hands, this joke could have got­ten stale quickly. Thank­fully, Nan­jiani and Gor­don’s script gives each of the po­ten­tial brides a vivid per­son­al­ity, and the ac­tresses get the most out of what is fleet­ing screen time. It’s quickly ob­vi­ous that these women are as frus­trated with the pres­sure to marry as Ku­mail is.

If be­ing placed in an ar­ranged mar­riage seems un­ap­peal­ing, it’s made worse by the fact Ku­mail is fall­ing for a young white woman who heck­led one of his sets. If Emily (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks) has com­mit­ted a car­di­nal sin of au­di­ence be­hav­ior, Ku­mail finds him­self drawn to her courage and re­solve.

He could use some of those qual­i­ties. He doesn’t tell his folks that he’s see­ing Emily be­cause she’s not only a non-Mus­lim, but di­vorced. It’s no won­der she grad­u­ally dumps Ku­mail be­cause she wants to be a girl­friend in­stead of a dirty se­cret.

Right when Ku­mail be­gins to re­gret his cow­ardice, he gets a call in­form­ing him that Emily has be­come se­ri­ously ill and needs him. The doc­tors are about to in­duce a coma, and her un­der­stand­ably wor­ried par­ents (Ray Ro­mano and Holly Hunter) are in town. Quickly, Ku­mail has to be­come the boyfriend he should have been ear­lier.

Di­rec­tor Michael Showal­ter han­dles the hospi­tal scenes with an ap­pro­pri­ate sense of grav­ity, but The Big Sick is hardly mo­rose. The char­ac­ters don’t speak in punch­lines or quips, but the di­a­logue is con­sis­tently re­al­is­tic and offhand­edly funny. Ku­mail is of­ten fun­nier when he’s try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with the two fam­i­lies he has up­set. His po­ten­tial in-laws know about the breakup and ini­tially blame him for her med­i­cal woes.

In fact, Ku­mail’s par­ents be­come more sym­pa­thetic as the film pro­gresses. Cast­ing for­mi­da­ble per­form­ers like Shroff and Bol­ly­wood leg­end Anupam Kher (The Sil­ver Lin­ings Play­book, Bend It Like Beck­ham) cer­tainly doesn’t hurt.

Ku­mail’s ca­reer dol­drums would make any mother or fa­ther con­cerned. Even if Ku­mail could work a mi­cro­phone with the fi­nesse and mas­tery of Chris Rock, his chances of mak­ing it as a co­me­dian are thin. Also, there are still folks out there who can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween an ob­ser­vant Mus­lim and a ter­ror­ist. It’s hard to reach out to oth­ers if you aren’t wel­come.

Gor­don and Nan­jiani avoid mak­ing a van­ity project from The Big Sick by giv­ing the sup­port­ing cast plenty to do. Hunter and Ro­mano ini­tially seem like an un­likely cou­ple, but her dom­i­neer­ing man­ner and Ro­mano’s hang­dog de­meanor are sur­pris­ingly com­pat­i­ble, and the lat­ter is ac­tu­ally fun­nier when he’s not de­liv­er­ing bon mots.

By gaz­ing out­side of their navels, Nan­jiani and Gor­don can tell their story with some­thing that’s worth­while for the rest of us.

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