As a longtime fan of Kumail Nanjiani’s standup, I had high hopes for The Big Sick, maybe too high. In all fairness to the actors and director Michael Showalter, there were times when it was genuinely funny. These moments were not all that frequent, and a lot of the humor felt forced, but the film made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion, which is a rare feat for most contemporary comedies. Kumail Nanjiani has an undeniable gift for comedy, wearing a mildly flabbergasted expression at all times as he attempts to reconcile his conservative muslim roots with the world of standup comedy. This is a large part of The Big Sick’s story, and, by and large, it works. It’s not great, but it works. Unfortunately, it is merely the subplot for a larger romantic storyline that just doesn’t work. It is always risky to mix heavy drama with comedy, as filmmakers run the risk of either making the film too serious for audiences, or dulling the comedy so as not to undermine the dramatic moments. The Big Sick somehow makes both of these mistakes, resulting in a rather preachy and cringeworthy experience.
Purportedly based on the real-life experiences of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, the film follows Kumail (as himself) and Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), at the onset of their relationship. Kumail is a standup comedian looking for his big break, while his parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), try to set him up with various Muslim women in the hopes that he will consent to an arranged marriage. Kumail, who is not particularly religious, wants nothing to do with his parent’s machinations. After one of his sets, Kumail meets Emily, a non-Muslim white woman, and a relationship quickly ensues. However, when Emily discovers that Kumail hasn’t told his parents about her, and that he doesn’t see a future with her due to his family’s beliefs, she breaks up with him. Weeks later, Kumail is informed that Emily has been admitted to the hospital with a serious lung infection. When he arrives, the doctor insists that he sign the consent forms so that Emily can be put into a medically-induced coma. After signing the forms, he calls Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who act distant with him since they know that Emily ended the relationship. Despite feeling awkward and unwanted, Kumail sticks close by, forming a bond with her parents as they monitor Emily’s health.
The Big Sick works best when Kumail uses the material from his standup as part of the story. The clash between Pakistani and American culture is frequently humorous, and is just about the only interesting aspect of the film. Without it, the whole thing feels like little more than an after school special, teaching us about the evils of prejudice and judging a book by its cover. Anyone with a brain and a conscious knows these life lessons, so it just feels like condescension when they are preached at the audience like we are all five year olds gathered around the screen. To make matters worse, the film is dreadfully formulaic, clinging to any and all romantic-comedy cliches for dear life.
There’s one particular moment in the film when it becomes obvious that it is little more than a vapid feel-good movie, with nothing to say of any substance. Kumail is doing his standup routine, and Emily’s parents have accepted his invitation to attend. When some drunken idiot in the audience starts heckling Kumail with racially-charged remarks, Beth, who up to this point in the film had been very antagonistic toward Kumail, makes a scene defending his honor and lambasting his tormenter. It’s one of those scenes that, depending on what kind of person you are, and what kind of films you enjoy, will either bring out tears of joy or induce nausea. I fall in the latter category, because to me there is nothing worse than faux-progressivism packaged to satiate our most base emotional appetites.
While Kumail is definitely the star of the show, and, at least in terms of comedic ability, the most talented member of the cast, the ancillary performances are hit and miss. His standup comedy friends are occasionally funny, but more often than not just condescending and obnoxious, although that seems to be done on purpose. Standup comedians are funny onstage, but can sometimes be a bit much as friends. Kumail’s family functions more as cardboard cutouts of Pakistani Muslims than actual people. Though this does amplify a few of the funny moments between Kumail and his parents, it doesn’t do much to support the film’s message of inclusivity and open-mindedness. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both do their part as the grieving parents, but they are some of the worst offenders in terms of sugar-sweet sentimentality. When Beth isn’t conflicted over her growing tolerance of Kumail, she’s having fights with Ray over past indiscretions that add little to the story. Even Emily’s coma has to take a backseat to make room for the unnecessary drama of their marriage. This brings me to Zoe Kazan’s portrayal of Emily. I have not seen Kazan in any other films, but if this performance is indicative of her larger body of work, I’m not inclined to seek any of them out. She is most believable as a real human being when she is in a coma, otherwise, she is about as bland and two-dimensional as a person can be.
While many will enjoy The Big Sick for the feel-good movie that it is, some of us just can’t get past its many shortcomings. The laughs are too infrequent, the drama is out of sync with the comedy, and the message is heavy-handed, to say nothing of the spotty performances. Nonetheless, if you can see past all of that, The Big Sick is a relatively entertaining, albeit flawed exhibition of Kumail Nanjiani’s talent.
Rating: ★★ out of 5
The Big Sick is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.