Thursday, August 3, 2017

Love Craft: The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick.

The Big Sick, which chronicles a barely fictionalized version of the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and therapist/writer Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), has to be one of the best romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. Applying the label of that genre, and all the baggage that comes with it, feels wrong in this case, because part of what makes The Big Sick so brilliant are the ways in which it subverts and elevates the genre it belongs to. It’s a romantic comedy in the sense that it’s hopelessly romantic and ruthlessly funny, but it’s also much more than those surface-level elements, so I’m not sure what else to call it. I guess it’s enough to say that it’s one of the more finely crafted films, full stop, that I’ve seen all year.

Kumail is working in Chicago as both a stand-up comedian and an Uber driver, and meets grad-school student Emily after she (politely) heckles him at one of his sets. Their one-night stand proves to be more enduring than either of them is prepared for, and when Emily is later pulled into a coma by an aggressive illness, Kumail is suddenly thrown into an emotional maelstrom where he has to navigate the expectations of his traditional Pakistani family, the extremely awkward hospital encounters with Emily’s parents (whom he’s never met before), and his own complicated feelings for Emily. It’s very much a “truth is stranger than fiction” sort of story, in that real life is almost never this complicated and hilarious and heartwarming and sad. And yet, of course it is. Always. Every day.

That truthfulness lives at the heart of The Big Sick. Nanjiani and Gordon, as co-screenwriters, invest the film with the sort of achingly relatable detail that so many other films leave out, like the awkwardness of handling normal bodily functions around a person you’ve just met, or the bizarre rituals you force your partner to endure in a sort of relationship hazing ceremony where he or she can prove their worth (for Kumail, this means making Emily sit through B-movie schlock like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a scene which will surely be painfully recognizable to any girl who’s dated a pop-culture-obsessed dork). The film feels incredibly real, in large part because it is real. The film’s writing, direction (by Michael Showalter), and performances all contribute a level of craft that would make the film compelling even without the true-story source material, but it’s drawing from those real experiences, in all their grubby, uncomfortable, sweet, heartbreaking detail, that lets Nanjiani and Gordon bring a sense of authenticity that’s unprecedented in this type of film.

Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick.

As Emily, Zoe Kazan is luminous; she projects the same effortless affability that the real Emily does, even through a camera lens or a microphone, painting a portrait of a girl who is equal parts sugar-sweet and razor-sharp (and remains such a force in both your mind and the story that when she disappears for the lion’s share of the runtime, you never miss her presence). Kumail is remarkable as himself: his comedic talent is utterly innate, and he expertly rides the emotional wave when his love of his family and of his girlfriend tug him in opposite directions. You completely understand why these two would fall for one another, because they pull you down there with them into the messy, joyful melting pot of their early love and their complicated families. Zenobia Shroff and the always outstanding Anupam Kher play Kumail’s parents, not as the antagonistic stereotypes who invite your scorn with their antiquated thinking, but as three-dimensional human beings who have built a life for Kumail and who struggle, as he does, to adjust to an American way of life. It’s Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, though, who run away with the film – they offer phenomenal performances that grow from the cold, rigid protectiveness of the characters' daughter (both from her disease and from this weird Pakistani dude whom they don’t really know) to the inevitable embrace of this young man who’s just as dedicated as they are to making sure that Emily’s okay. (It’s a tribute to both actors, as well as Kazan, that you can see both of them in Emily – she is as fierce as her Texan mother and as warm and goofy as her New Yorker dad.)

There’s so much to say about the film’s unique and intelligent takes on romance, culture, religion, comedy, grief, and love, but I could be writing all day and I’d never do these topics justice the way The Big Sick does. (It manages to be a film that includes both heart-wrenching scenes of cultural strife and what I consider to be the Mona Lisa of 9/11 jokes – no mean feat.) I could have spiced up this review by peppering samples of the film’s jokes through it, but that would be cheap. I could continue to extol the virtues of the cast, but that would be excessive. I could endlessly praise the screenwriting, with all its depth and charm and subtlety and grace, but it’s so much better to see it on screen than it is to hear me talk about it. Go see The Big Sick, and you’ll understand why many critics have already called it the best film of 2017. Take a chance on something without watching a trailer or reading spoilers. Do what Kumail and Emily did, and seize the moment.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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