The Big Sick – movie review

by James Robins / 10 August, 2017

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Emily (Zoe Kazan) and boyfriend Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) in The Big Sick.

Based on a true story, The Big Sick is one of the best American romantic comedies in a good while.

Morrissey sang that having a girlfriend in a coma was “really serious”. In The Big Sick, one of the best American romantic comedies to come along in some time, having a bed-bound, conked-out other half is both really serious and, surprisingly, brilliantly funny.

The girlfriend is Emily (Zoe Kazan), a wide-eyed psychology major with an infectious smile, who is struck down by a “big biological misunderstanding”.

The boyfriend at her bedside is Kumail Nanjiani (who wrote the script with his real-life wife, Emily V Gordon, and plays himself), a striving Pakistani-born stand-up comedian with a family determined to find him a wife by a thorough vetting process, rather than leaving it to the trial-and-error of Western dating.

We get the usual whirlwind montage: a first date consummated as Night of the Living Dead plays in the background; that warm fuzz of early yearning; the process of settling into the ebb and flow of a relationship.

But it all runs aground on Nanjiani’s deceit. For fear of angering his staunchly traditional parents, which could lead to his excommunication, he keeps their love hidden. A bitter fight ensues and Emily falls ill with the argument unresolved.

You start to wonder whether she’ll pull through, only to be wildly distracted by the arrival of her neurotic parents (Ray Romano, and Holly Hunter sporting a thick Raising Arizona-era accent), who enliven what could have been some turgid passages. Initially chilly towards Nanjiani, they eventually warm to his diffident and softly spoken manner.

That manner is the essence and ploy of Nanjiani’s comedy. His gags hinge on expectation. You lean into his faint lisp and guffaw loudly at an unexpected punchline. He’s asked about his stance on 9/11. “It was a tragedy,” he says. Pause. “We lost 19 of our best guys.”

Although it rushes and muddles its conclusion, The Big Sick is capably made, endlessly witty and at times sweetly affectionate.

Its likeability, compared with other examples of the genre, is the veracity of its story. There’s nothing funnier, or indeed more heartbreaking, than real life.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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