The Big Sick and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios and Lionsgate
Directed by Michael Showalter
I try to keep up with who the big up and coming comedians are, but I often find myself under a giant rock when something like this comes out starring a guy who I’ve CERTAINLY seen in other movies like Fist Fight and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, but wasn’t aware of his output beyond that. I’ve never seen Silicon Valley which seems to be Kumail Nanjiani’s biggest role to date (though he DID play Prismo in Adventure Time) so this is gonna be the first time that I’ve seen him in a starring role as opposed to a funny secondary character in REALLY mediocre or outright awful comedies, and apparently it’s somewhat autobiographical which makes it even MORE representative of what this guy is all about. Does Kumail’s big debut as a leading man in his own life story manage to hit the mark and hopefully launch him into super stardom, or is this just a failed vanity project whose only purpose will be as a piece of trivia for Silicon Valley fans? Let’s find out!
The movie is based on the real story about Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan but Emily V Gordon is the co-writer here) and the hardships they had to endure along the way. Kumail is living the Stand-Up Comedy dream of a crappy apartment and shitty comedy club gigs while Emily is working towards her masters in Psychology when the two of them meet and quickly fall for each other. Sadly, life keeps getting in the way of their happiness as Kumail’s mother and father (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) still expect him to marry a Pakistani woman and he doesn’t have the heart to either confront his parents about this or to tell Emily about their plans for him. Things eventually come to a head, I won’t spoil too much here, but there’s a tragedy that happens where Emily is in the hospital and Kumail has no idea what to do; especially when her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) enter the picture and are immediately skeptical of Kumail. Now Kumail is stuck in the worst of all cases; trying to coddle two sets of parents who are looking out for their kids and making terrible mistakes, and also trying to figure out exactly what he wants and how hard he’s willing to fight for it. Will Emily overcome whatever illness has struck her so severely? Will the two of them manage to overcome whatever issues they may have and properly fight for each other’s happiness? Does anyone else think this might be a new benchmark for romantic comedies!? Maybe not one of the BEST, but it sure feels like it’s gonna have an impact, right!?
I’ve tended to be kinder to a lot of comedies this year than my fellow critics (*cough* Baywatch *cough*) and while I stand by my opinions on those films, this is the one that’s gonna have a shelf life beyond its opening weekend. The same way that Judd Apatow exploded onto the scene with The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up or even the way Mike Birbiglia’s career got its second wind with Sleepwalk with Me, I think this is good enough that it’ll end up having a positive impact for everyone involved. Now sure, Kumail Nanjiani has been around for some time (as have most of the people in this), but it feels incredibly genuine and like the kind of movie that we all were waiting for but didn’t know it. Now I don’t want to over sell it as there are definitely a few places where the movie is lacking, but with so much heart and humanity coming from this story based on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon’s real life experiences, it manages to stay engaging enough to power through whatever weakness are there and is easily one of the most satisfying comedies you’ll see all year. If nothing else, I’d MUCH rather see Nanjiani’s talents going towards something like this than showing up in lesser comedies like Fist Fight.
What makes this movie work so well is actually rather simple. You’ve got some great comedians working with sharp material, and it isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and go to some really rough places; not as some sort of shock statement a four year old could come up with (*cough* It Comes At Night *cough*) but something much more human and heartbreakingly relatable. Comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin which is why some of the best comedies out there infuse this thing called HUMAN EMOTION into their stories! There are some very uncomfortable moments and ideas the movie plays with that might turn some audience members away (I certainly got a bit uncomfortable towards the end) but it’s not done in a way to intentionally antagonize people; rather it’s the awkward ambiguities of real life as what one person wants may conflict with how other people feel about it and the movie doesn’t make a blanket statement about either repressing your own emotions or making others have to deal with you and what you’re going through. The film is essentially based on a true story about Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon’s trouble relationship that was punctuated by… well the title of the movie, and the stress and pain of that experience, along with the strange joys and humorous moments that popped up every once in a while, shine through and make this one of the more memorable movies of the year.
The cast is what really ends up selling such an uncomfortably funny story with no real weak links to think of as far as performances. Kumail has a certain charisma that works for a story like this even if he doesn’t come across as leading man material, and I’m curious if he’s limiting himself for this movie or if this is really the extent of his dramatic range. Either way it works here in the way that very few actors manage to pull off the first time they headline a film (*cough* Sharlto Copley *cough*). It’s not just Kumail that makes this work though. He’s got a fantastic supporting cast to back him up including Zoe Kazdan, Holly Hunter, and Adeel Akhtar, but the real surprise ended up being Ray Romano playing a role not that dissimilar from what he did in Everybody Loves Raymond, but doing it with a depth of emotion and genuine uncomfortable wittiness that I’m now interested to go back and see what he’s been up to since Welcome to Mooseport. Honestly, I’m not sure how much more I can even say about this movie other than it’s a solid script with great actors doing a great job. Reviewing comedies is already a hard endeavor as humor is incredibly subjective, but what this movie gets right is simply the fundamentals and it does so with flying colors. Nothing big or flashy and not even a completely original or out there story. It’s just a movie that’s really good at doing what it sets out to do which you sadly don’t see as often as you should with comedies; even with ones that I ended up liking.
Now as much as I did enjoy this movie, there are few flaws that kept me from enjoying it as much as say Knocked Up (the last great benchmark in romantic comedies as far as I’m concerned) which is honestly the best movie I can even compare this to and rather apropos considering Judd Apatow is on hand as a producer. There are very few words that make my life more miserable than “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” as it makes it about a million times harder to make coherent arguments about a movie’s flaws, and sadly I think my major problems with this film (and why I don’t think it’s as good as Knocked Up) stems from this singular aspect of it. Now to be fair, the movie doesn’t make much compunction about the fact that this is based on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon’s relationship, but considering that they are both the ONLY credited writers here, it’s not something that should be ignored even if the marketing doesn’t emphasis it. It shares a rather common problem with biopics (which this is KIND of) in that we end up getting more of a Cliffs Notes (do people even know what that is anymore? Should we all just switch to saying Spark Notes?) version of the story rather than something that flows continuously from one event to the other; particularly time which is something that I never got a solid bead on as there’s very little indication of how long one scene takes place after another. I was surprised when Kumail confirms at one point that he and Emily had been dating for three months (felt a lot shorter than that), I have no idea how long Emily was in the hospital, and there’s a subplot about a Montreal comedy festival that seems to be taking place on a different temporal plane. It’s there throughout the whole movie, but if we’re supposed to buy that this takes place over say… four to eight months (just ball parking here), it makes no sense for this one recruiter for the festival to be there at the beginning of the movie and still talking about finding the right talent for the festival at the END of it. I mean… MAYBE they were looking for comedians RIGHT after the previous year’s festival, but you’d think this guy would AT LEAST go to other freaking cities over this enormous length of time! One of the most amazing things about Knocked Up that I think helps it stick in people’s minds is just how smoothly the story progresses from beginning to end. Watch the opening scene and the ending scene back to back, and then realize how perfectly that film got from one extreme to the other without feeling forced in the slightest. I just don’t get that sense of tightness and finesse from this movie and it ends up suffering JUST a little bit because of it. The big emotional scenes don’t have quite the impact they should because the movie feels somewhat aimless in its execution which makes sense as it’s BASED ON A TRUE STORY and real life rarely works in three act structures, but then again I’m (arguably) a film critic; not a biographical fact checker.
The other problem I have is much more minor and I cannot stress enough that I AM NOT THE AUTHORITY TO TALK ON THIS SUBJECT AND I SHOULD NOT BE INFORMING YOUR OPINION ON IT! I am merely stating what I found… odd in the movie. A major plot thread in this is Kumail’s relationship to his family, as well as his heritage, which he struggles with constantly. He’s clearly proud of who he is and where he came from, going so far as to make a pedantic one man show about his childhood for seemingly no other reason than to educate people on Pakistan and Cricket, but he’s also at constant odds with his family (particularly his mother) regarding his choices in life and how much he’s embraced WESTERN CULTURE; whatever the hell that even means anymore. I REALLY dug this part of the movie because it’s something we rarely get to see in media (especially comedies) and Kumail is fantastic at portraying that inner turmoil which I’m assuming he really had to go through in order to live his life in the way that he saw fit to. However, and this is more so true in the second half of the film than the first, I get the sense that Kumail (or maybe even Emily V Gordon since she IS the cowriter) is still somewhat bitter over what appears to have happened as Kumail’s family is portrayed as both cartoonish and unreasonable; contrasted with Emily’s parents who are certainly silly and stubborn but are given MUCH more screen time and more depth. See, this is where that whole I’M A WHITE GUY TALKING ABOUT THIS SUBJECT and the BASED ON A TRUE STORY bits smash together into something I’m REALLY conflicted to even talk about as I look at this movie and see a somewhat unflattering depiction of devoted Pakistani Muslims, but it’s also being told by a Pakistani man who came from that religion and is conveying a PERSONAL experience to us. Is what we’re seeing on screen true? I have no idea! I wasn’t there and we’re only hearing one side of it, so maybe some of the worst actions his parents take are exaggerated, or they’re right on the money. Does either case hurt the movie? Well I’d say that it doesn’t help those CHARACTERS who could have used a bit motivation for me to believe what they did, but there I go again putting my own values onto characters from a culture I’m very much not a part of! Maybe where they come from, what Kumail did (which is rather innocuous in my eyes) really IS one of the worst things a person can do in their culture, but then the movie itself seems to be framed in such a way as to portray that point of view as intentionally mean spirited and petty which would go to my point that within the fiction and framing of the movie there seems to lack believable motivation for them specifically when compared to the way that everyone else behaves in this movie.
Look, I’m gonna nitpick just about any movie so don’t take my minor complaints and observations as some sort of deterrent to seeing the movie. It’s PROBABLY one of the best films of the year even if I had one or two minor issues with it, and it’s easily one of the best comedies we’ve gotten in a while; even more so than my beloved Baywatch which is STILL fun, but even Dwayne Johnson can’t compensate for that movie’s flaws enough to put it in the same league as this film. If it wasn’t clear already, I highly recommend you go out there and see this movie while it’s in theaters. It may not have the big budget special effects that you want to see on the big screen, but this rather simple tale of love and tragedy will stick with you a lot longer than pretty much anything else we got this summer.