Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January “The Big Sick” has been stirring up a lot of buzz as potentially one of the best films of 2017. With its wide release finally here the romantic comedy doesn’t disappoint, focusing on a charming romance story mixed with smart jokes, great laughs and a cultural message that just might make it one of the year’s most important films for the masses.
“The Big Sick” is inspired by the real life love story of cross-cultural married couple Kumail Nanjiani, who portrays a somewhat fictional version of himself in the film, and Emily Gordon, who is portrayed by Zoe Kazan onscreen although the real Gordon was a writer of the film. The plot follows Kumail as he tries to escape the expectations of his staunch traditionalist Muslim Pakistani family and begins a relationship with a young white woman who he meets at one of his comedy shows. After the stress of his family’s expectations creates a rift between the two, Emily goes into a medically induced coma for an unknown illness causing Kamail to bond with her parents, stand up to his own parents, and reevaluate his life as a comedian and as an American Pakistani man finding his own place in the world.
As far as comedies go 2017 has seen very few, if any, quality projects so far and frankly “The Big Sick” was a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. For one thing the movie is actually funny with Kamail presenting some great one liners as an aspiring comedian and a few comedy greats of today and yesterday, including Ray Romano, Bo Burnham, and Aidy Bryant, all providing their own unique brands of comedy to the film in ways that feel natural and witty. It doesn’t hurt that part of the film focuses on Kumail’s comedy aspirations and thus presents his act on stage at a comedy club. Kumail, despite being a soft spoken and rather dorky comedic actor, adds a special charm to his own interoperation of himself as the leader of the cast. He’s a real man, one with emotion but a sense of humor who doesn’t take life too seriously and his charm actually bleeds into the rest of the characters around him while his emotional breakdowns at the thought of losing the woman he loves make us feel his pain and frustration as much as we feel his passion for his art and his woman.
The rest of the cast does get their time to shine with Romano portraying Emily’s father along with Holly Hunter as the mother who finally meet the Pakistani man their daughter has been talking about, but this first meeting happens after their daughter is in a coma and has broken up with him. The awkwardness portrayed between these characters and Kumail is fantastically drawn out and well paced, leaving the audience just enough time to soak in the growing relationships and discomfort while not overplaying the racial divide aspect of the whole story. Hunter and Romano are experienced actors and it shows as they handle a pair of cautious and traumatized parents with class and ease.
Beyond the comedy and the acting however is a much larger picture that really makes this a film worthy of greatness. This is a comedy film with something to say and it makes the most of its 2-hour-plus run time to tackle some very deep and slightly controversial issues with a tasteful approach. Of course Kamail being Pakistani we see many references to Pakistani culture in this film as he faces the threat of an arranged marriage, pretends to be praying, and can’t even feel comfortable in his relationship with concern that he will be disowned. That discomfort is also felt when he meets Emily’s parents, putting Kumail smack-dab in the middle of his roots and the man he wants to be which is a free-thinking American with a Pakistani heritage. We see Kumail face these stereotypes and judgments from both sides, and even while on stage, that serve as powerful in-your-face commentary on the status of American race relations with middle eastern people today without the film taking itself too seriously in the process. “The Big Sick” only borders on pandering and never really makes that leap into “it’s too much” territory with the entire theme of race relations feeling more real as that part of the plot is driven by a man who himself is a member of the minority race in the equation and questions both the prejudice of those who don’t understand him as well as his own family for refusing to evolve when they moved to America.
The film also serves as a commentary on interracial marriage as it’s a direct tribute to the cross-cultural relationship of the real Kumail and Emily. The duo also proved to be tasteful in their approach to this controversial concept by showing a pair of lovers who go beyond cultural boundaries and are just two nerdy, dorky, quirky people who fell in love for all the strangest reasons. In fact, it’s when they acknowledge their racial divide and the walls between them that the issues really spark in their adorable relationship with Kumail and Zoe Kazan turning in a pair of massively believable and impressive performances as they try to understand, appreciate, and love each other in the face of adversity. These are scared individuals who, in some ways, hide their trouble lives behind a sense of humor making them much more human and relatable than you might expect.
A third much more subtle theme allows Zoe Kazan to shine as we see Kumail’s transformation over the course of the love of his life’s battle to survive, but all of it is out of eye and earshot of Emily as she is in a coma. Throughout the story there’s no obvious resolution to any conflict regardless of any of the characters fates and that is due in part to Zoe Kazan’s amazing ability to go from quirky girlfriend to a stern and self-aware and frankly powerful woman who knows she deserves more than what she is getting and not once in the film does she let Kumail off the hook. It’s a great twist on the romantic comedy as we see legitimate conflict mixed in with satire and humor to create a confusing and brilliant mix of emotions for the viewer and while Kazan spends half the film in bed, her character EMily is the connecting glue that binds every major theme, issue, and conflict together and she is also the inspiration for these characters to overcome these roadblocks in their own lives even if that only means coming to peace with themselves rather than escaping their faults.
That brings me to what I love most about this film and that’s that it just FEELS fresh and new. I found the story to be engaging and interesting and the comedy to be smart and enjoyably free of clichés unless there was a moment for self-awareness where a cliche was made appropriate. One moment I’d be laughing so hard my stomach hurt and the next I’m on the edge of my seat with a slight tear in my eye watching great character transformations take place right before my eyes and truly heartbreaking revelations and life lessons play out. It’s a viewing experience I can honestly say I’ve never had, making it all the more intriguing and engrossing as the movie played on.
“The Big Sick” is everything a romantic comedy film is supposed to be and more. Smart humor, powerful themes, and a truly charming love story all combine to create what is truly one of the most unique, emotional, funny, and, most of all, grounded movie experiences 2017 has seen so far. “The Big Sick” is miles ahead of its comedy competition and will hopefully do for the comedy genre what numerous projects have done for horror in recent years as we finally see a well written comedy film shine and show the true potential that hides behind the shallow laughs and raunchy humor that litters comedy films of the day. I can honestly say it’s a film like nothing I’ve ever experienced and truly is worthy of being considered one of the best films of the year to date and, quite possibly, one of the greats when the year is aid and done.