The Big Sick (2017)

Directed by Michael Showalter


The Big Sick is a very Apatow-ian comedy, which is fitting since he produced it.  Like with Knocked Up or Funny People or Trainwreck or even Forgetting Sarah Marshall, this is a comedy that tackles a very serious situation, without mocking it.  In this case, Kumail Nanjiani’s (ex) girlfriend falls into a coma, and he’s blacklisted from his own family for not accepting their many arranged marriage proposals.

In Knocked Up there was the unexpected pregnancy, in Funny People there’s another heavy medical diagnosis as well as a degree of depression, and in Trainwreck there’s a very personal story between Amy Schumer’s character and her ailing father.  Around all of that there are jokes, lots of jokes.  The Big Sick isn’t just a comedy, but also a series of little shows for comedians to offer quippy one liners and riff off each other.

Bo Burnham (also in Funny People) and Aidy Bryant are chief among these comedians, as is Nanjiani himself, as they all play comedians in the movie.  I guess an Apatow film, even if he didn’t direct this one, has a formula that involves a very personal, heartfelt core, surrounded with funny but occasionally juvenile one liners.  If there’s a theme, maybe it’s that the protagonist is constantly struggling to deal with the gravity of something in his or her life.  It’s a way to say that we can laugh at this, but it is very serious.  In some ways this style might not gel, as often you need to pick your tone and stick with it.

But in The Big Sick it works.  Part of that is because so much of the humor and the jokes, often delivered by Nanjiani himself, works as a reflection of his character.  These characters are comedians, and they deal with the world through their humor.  In many movies a character seems supremely capable of doing things the actor him or herself can do but that the character can’t.  It’s like when someone suddenly needs to go undercover and ‘act’ as a new character.  Yes, we know the actor can do this because this person is an actor, but they’re playing an accountant, for example, so how can we believe that an accountant can suddenly become a performer?  That exact thing happens in Big Trouble in Little China, but that movie is extremely ludicrous from the start, so you just kind of go with it.

Here, though, Kumail Nanjiani, playing a version of himself with the same name, jokes because he’s having trouble figuring out how to navigate the tricky situation with his ex-girlfriend’s coma and meeting her parents for the first time.  Oh yeah, that and there’s the stress he feels from lying to his parents about praying and fielding their arranged marriage proposals.

The first act has a lot to establish.  Kumail is a comedian/Uber driver in Chicago, and there’s a talent scout in the audience.  During a performance, Emily (Zoe Kazan) heckles him, and they get to talking.  This builds pretty quickly to them dating, and suddenly it’s been five months.  That’s when the fall out happens, and Emily demands to know if they have a future together considering his parents may never support them together.

They break up, and then Kumail finds out that she’s in the hospital.  He has time to visit her one night, but not long after she is put into a medically-induced coma, and then her parents, who know about their breakup, arrive.

As I type this all out, it sounds like way too much for a single act, particularly the first one.  Kumail’s and Emily’s break up feels a little rushed simply because there’s so much to establish before we get to the meat of the story which is his relationship with her parents.  Once they arrive, however, the rushed-through elements of the plot are forgiven because the story is so charming and easy to roll with.

Kumail stays at the hospital with Emily and her parents out of guilt at first.  He did break up with her, after all, but he beats himself up about it when he’s away from the hospital, trying to figure out what he should do.  The same line of thinking extends to his own family.  His mother has been setting him up on a comical amount of dates with women of the same ethnic and religious background.  We establish early on how seriously his parents take their culture and religion, and we’re told that a cousin of his married a white girl and has effectively been forced out of the family.

The turning point for Kumail, in regards to Emily’s family at least, is when her father Terry (Ray Romano) insists that he and his wife Beth (Holly Hunter) attend Kumail’s comedy show.  It’s a nightmare situation for him, one of many, and the movie does a terrific job of playing up the laughs as well as the dread in several moments.  The idea of meeting a girlfriend’s parents, let alone an ex’s parents for the first time is uncomfortable, especially when their daughter is in a coma.  There’s a scene where he and Terry briefly discuss 9/11, and Kumail makes a funny but likely inappropriate joke considering the situation, there’s a scene where Kumail apologizes to Emily as he uses her limp finger to unlock her phone in order to call her parents, there’s the scene when Beth gets into a fight with a heckler at Kumail’s show, etc.  There are a lot of cringe-worthy, funny moments.  The movie tries to make you very uncomfortable, and it does so well.

But after his show, and after Beth stands up for Kumail against the heckler (though without him asking), they begin to bond.  From there everything starts to go pretty well, and the focus of conflict shifts to Kumail’s parents eventually blacklisting him from the family when he confesses that he’s in love with a white woman (who happens to be sick).

The movie starts to drag a little, suffering from a familiar movie problem of having too many endings, but the endings aren’t too bad if you enjoy the characters, which I do.  Emily eventually wakes up, and somewhat predictably she tells Kumail that she doesn’t want to see him again because last time she saw him, she hated him.  You know they’re going to get together, though, and there are a couple scenes where it seems like they will… but they don’t and it drags on a little longer.

Then, to heighten the suspense a little further, Kumail’s friends ask him to move to New York with them, adding a bit of a ticking clock to the story.  Of course Emily decides she really loves him, after watching the youtube video of his last performance in which he broke down onstage while talking about Emily’s illness, and she visits him only to learn about his impending move.  So when are they going to get together?

Finally we cut to a little further in the future, Kumail is performing in New York, and Emily shows up at his performance, and they get back together.

This is a romantic comedy, at the end of the day, so the ending feels a little too familiar.  It’s not that I didn’t want them to get back together, I really wanted the reunion to happen, but you still know it’s going to happen, particularly since the movie is co-written by husband and wife team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  So when the story kept dragging it out, it felt a little too… unnecessary.  There were too many things to cross off the list.  You also had to get to the completion of the subplot between Terry and Beth, between Kumail and his own family, the pay off of his one man performance (in a very La La Land-esque story like that of Emma Stone’s character), and the completion of Kumail’s own career arc as a comedian.  Moving to New York is important, we know, because he’s pursuing this dream of comedy.

So the movie tries to give us everything.  We want them to end up together, but he has to go to New York… so she just goes too.  It feels a bit lazy, because did Emily just abandon her own grad school program?  It’s left unsaid, and we don’t know how much time has passed between Chicago and New York.

I really love this movie, it’s probably one of my favorites of the year so far, but it felt a lot like Wonder Woman in the sense that, as a unique story, it was incredibly enjoyable, but it ended in a fashion more glued to its genre than to its own narrative.  These endings were a bit cliche, like a checklist, running through the characters and loose threads with such quickness that none of the moments really got the weight they deserved.

It’s a long movie, and I don’t think it could be much more cutdown considering how much legwork has to take place in the first act, setting up the rise and fall of Kumail’s relationship with Emily.  The one thing that does seem redundant, though, is his one-man show.  Kumail, in addition to his comedy, performs a truly atrocious one man show about Pakistan, and while it is genuinely informative (and passionate too), it’s horribly unfunny, and that’s the point.  His friends and Emily both pretend to like it, and the moment adds to Kumail’s goofy sensibility, but it doesn’t do much else.  He’s already a comedian, so the performance feels like a retread of things we’ve already established.  There’s a moment in act three where he incorporates Emily’s suggestions about the show and performs it to a bigger audience with a more personal slant.  The point is that she tells him to make it more personal, she’s right, he does, and it improves the show.  But this storyline could be written into his stand up.

It’s been done a lot in movies about performers, again including in La La Land, but you take a comedian, let’s say, who’s struggling with another issue, they fight through that issue and discuss it onstage, and boom, their comedy career does better.  The same thing happened, from what I can remember, in Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me.  It’s also the same narrative you’ve likely heard a dozen times about Louis C.K.’s comedy career.  He had kids, began to be more open and honest about his real life experiences onstage, and his career took off. (also happened in Obvious Child)

So that’s what you expect to happen here.  I did appreciate that they avoided that cliche, though.  When Kumail gets onstage at his low point, his brutal honesty doesn’t translate to onstage success.  Instead he bombs.  But this moment serves the purpose of helping bring Emily back to him when she watches it on her computer.  But then she does come back to him only for him to tell her that he’s going to New York.  Maybe they could write out that scene, and when she does come back to him it already is in New York.

Anyways, the third act simply takes a little too long to end up where we already expect.  The movie as a whole, though, is fantastic, so I’m nitpicking a bit here.  It breathes a lot more in the middle, where the conversations between Kumail and Emily’s parents are funny, honest and not hurried.  The first and third acts, while still tremendously funny (like the jar of ashes in act 3) are a little more plot-driven and accelerated too.

But at the movie’s core, it’s made my Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Showalter and Judd Apatow, three people well-versed in comedy, specifically stand up comedy.  The story is built around the jokes, and the heart of the story, the real story within the movie, is the spine or the outline of the narrative.

The jokes probably should be funny, considering the talent involved, but it’s not always a given that a film has something more to say and can say it well.  This movie says a lot about interracial relationships, religion, parent-child relationships, personal drive, pain, etc.  The scenes in act 3 that showed the reality of Emily’s recovery were surprising in how real they felt.  I considered that she might leap out of bed upon waking up, but instead she has to go through physical therapy and avoid solid meals since her esophagus has weakened.  The movie is as real as it can be, and other movies might gloss over these details, particularly in a comedy.

So there’s a lot that feels familiar here, but there’s also so much the movie tells us about so many things.  It’s nice to see such a well-made collaboration between difference voices.  This is a move the lead actor co-wrote but that was directed by a relatively new director (Showalter’s third feature) and produced by Judd Apatow.  In other words, there are multiple strong voices (not to ignore Gordon’s co-writing credit) and well-established comedy names who are a part of this project for a reason.  Sometimes you need one guiding voice, and sometimes people just work well together.

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