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Monday, July 17, 2017

The Big Sick

The Big Sick is the best romantic comedy I have seen in a very long time.  Like the best films of the genre, we don't only root for the couple at the center of the story and want to see them get together, but it is also filled with undeniable truths about relationships to go with the laughs.  It has moments of sadness, sweetness and joy.  This is easily the most uplifting film of 2017 so far, and helps clear the air a little after a string of stinker comedies aimed at adults that have come this year before it, such as CHIPs, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.

The film is loosely based on the real life relationship between the film's writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  They met some 10 years ago, when Nanjiani was a stand up comic working in Chicago, and Gordon was a therapist.  They fell in love, but eight months into their relationship, Emily got sick and had to be placed into a medically-induced coma.  The film uses this simple premise to create such a heartfelt and funny film that it sometimes feels like a small cinematic miracle.  There is no forced sentiment, no situations that a real couple cannot relate to, and nothing feels artificial here.  With Kumail Nanjiani playing himself, and Zoe Kazan filling in for Emily up on the screen, they create a natural chemistry.

Kumail was born and raised in Pakistan, but his family moved to Chicago when he was young.  His parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both wonderful here) are not happy with the fact that their son is working mostly in stand up (he works as an Uber driver on the side), but do hope to marry him off, and bring before him a steady stream of Pakistani-American women and potential brides, whom they always secretly invite over for dinner whenever Kumail visits home.  One night, while Kumail is on stage at a comedy club, a young woman in the audience begins to lightly heckle him.  This is Emily, and there is an instant connection between them when the two meet at a bar after the show.  He recognizes her from the audience, and she seems drawn to him, but she's busy with her career as a therapist, so she's not sure if she should get in a serious relationship.  This concern does not last long, and before you know it, he's inviting her to his place to watch his favorite classic horror movies.

What makes the first half of The Big Sick work so well is not just the warm relationship that Kumail and Emily share up on the screen, but the various other notes that the film hits along the way.  We get an inside look at stand-up comedy, with Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler delivering big laughs and strong performances as Kumail's fellow comics and friends.  There are also the dinner scenes with the family, and the scenes depicting cultural differences.  All of it works beautifully, and is constructed so well, it sometimes doesn't feel like scripted material.  We feel like we are watching these people's lives, and that's something only the best romantic comedies (and movies, in general) can pull off.  Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, so that the multiple plots and tonal shifts never clash, and seem to create a natural chain of events.


The second half of the film is when Emily is in a coma, and while there are still laughs, it also has moments of dramatic weight as Kumail examines the relationship he's had with her up to that point.  Things were not on a good note for them before Emily gets sick, and he wants to be there for her.  But her parents show up at the hospital, and now he must try to bond with them, even though they know who he is and that he hurt their daughter.  Holly Hunter and Ray Romano (finally in a real role after years of being trapped in the Ice Age films) play Emily's mom and dad, and are note perfect in their roles.  Hunter is feisty, opinionated and filled with pride and worry for her daughter.  Romano is more low key, and comes across as a bit of an "Ugly American" at times. (Shortly after he meets Kumail, he asks what his opinion is on September 11th, and Kumail's response is one of the biggest laugh out loud moments of the movie.) Yet, just like Hunter, there is a lot of love for Emily, and they both bond with Kumail and begin to realize what their daughter initially saw in him.


Even though the relationship that builds between Kumail and Emily's parents takes center stage during the second half of the film, it still is able to successfully juggle and balance all of its many characters and subplots.  And even with Emily being in a coma for most of the second half, it never once feels like the movie has forgotten about her, or that it has moved away from her.  She remains a focal point of the story, because of Kumail's constant analyzing of what she means to him.  There is a beautiful moment late in the film when Kumail breaks down while in the middle of a comedy routine and opens up to the audience that is filled with more romantic emotion than just about any other scene I can remember in a while.  


The Big Sick made me happier than just about any other movie so far this year, and while it does run about 10 minutes too long, it doesn't change the fact that this is not only the funniest movie of the year, but also the sweetest and most charming.  It's also easily one of the great films of 2017.  I'm already looking forward to watching this one again.


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