THIS MONTH EMLYN ROBERTS-HARRY REVIEWS THE BIG SICK – A ROMANTIC COMEDY ABOUT A SUBJECT THAT SIMPLY SHOULDN’T BE FUNNY – BUT IS
We see loads of biopics and Oscar-baiting historical dramas with the ‘based on a true story’ label added on to give the proceedings a bit of extra heft, but it’s not terribly often that a romantic comedy based on real life comes along. Written by husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and based on the early days of their own relationship, The Big Sick isn’t looking to upend any genre norms or offer some quirky, post-modern take on the rom-com. It’s simply a very good, extremely funny and often quite touching romantic comedy – not so much inventing a new form as polishing an existing one to a mirror shine.
Nanjiani plays himself, an Uber driver and aspiring stand-up comic living in Chicago. At one of his gigs, he’s heckled by a girl called Emily (Zoe Kazan, playing her co-star’s future wife in what must have been a slightly surreal experience) and the two of them immediately hit it off. Trouble is, Kumail’s from a traditional Pakistani Muslim family who want him to have an arranged marriage, so he keeps Emily a secret from them. And when she’s stricken with a mysterious illness – the ‘big sick’ of the title – she’s put into a medically-induced coma, leaving Kumail and her parents to try and do what they can for her while not losing the plot themselves.
Strange diseases and induced comas aren’t exactly the stuff of classic comedy, but The Big Sick excels at mining awkward, even tragic circumstances for comedy gold. Moments that really shouldn’t be funny end up being hilarious, in a way that feels true to any number of real-life relationships where laughter can be found in even the weirdest of moments. The story has been significantly embellished from its origins in Nanjiani and Gordon’s early courtship, but there’s still nothing here that doesn’t feel like it could really have happened. It’s the difference between fact and truth that’s key to so many ‘true stories’, and The Big Sick is always true to the realities of modern relationships even if it might deviate from the actual facts.
While it might not do much to shake up the format of its genre, it is still quietly subversive in its own way. In its depiction of Kumail’s home life and his interfering, deeply religious parents, it offers a perspective too rarely seen in mainstream American cinema, and in doing so brings out a wealth of fresh, largely untapped material for creating compelling comedy and drama. Because while Kumail’s parents are undeniably great comic creations, there’s still real dramatic meat in the two generations’ conflict over their traditions, and we feel every bit of Kumail’s pain at trying to live his own life without alienating his family. Naturally, they don’t approve of Emily, and the scenes where the tension boils over make up some of the film’s richest moments.
This is all making it sound rather too serious, though, and while The Big Sick is an undeniably excellent, well-observed take on the potential culture clash between a Pakistani family and an American one, it is first and foremost a comedy, and it’s one of the best rom-coms to come along in some time. In a lot of ways, particularly the subject matter, it often feels like an indie (despite being produced by comedy kingpin Judd Apatow of Anchorman and Trainwreck fame), and it doesn’t have the loose, overly-improvised feel that plagues so many modern comedies. It’s sharp and witty rather than broad and zany, and despite clocking in at a little over two hours, it never feels over-long in the way that so many comedies (and Apatow productions, it must be said) often do. These are characters you’d happily spend much longer with given the chance, and while a sequel is presumably extremely unlikely, it certainly wouldn’t be unwelcome.
There’s a lot to love about The Big Sick – and it would be a glaring oversight not to single out Emily’s parents, played with aplomb by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and whose slow, uncomfortable bonding with Kumail provides many of the funniest scenes – but there isn’t room to mention it all here. So suffice it to say that if you want proof that the ‘traditional’ rom-com still has life in it yet, or if you just want a really good date movie, The Big Sick comes heartily recommended.