Sunday 9 July 2017

Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)

A romantic comedy based on true events, The Big Sick provides laughs, warmth and honest emotions in the story of a cross-cultural love.

In Chicago, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) is a struggling stand-up comic, the son of Pakistani immigrants. His mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) is determined to find him a future wife from the Pakistani community, but Kumail independently starts a relationship with all-American girl Emily (Zoe Kazan), and keeps her a secret from his family. When Emily learns that she may not be welcome in Kumail's culture, she breaks off their relationship.

Soon afterwards Emily is stricken with a mysterious serious illness, hospitalized and placed into a medically induced coma while an army of doctors try to devise a treatment plan. Kumail is irresistibly drawn to the hospital, where he meets Emily's parents Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Initially suspicious of Kumail's presence and motives, gradually they warm up to him. However, Emily still faces a challenge to overcome her illness, while Kumail has to confront his parents and sort out his cultural identity.

Co-written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, directed by Michael Showalter and co-produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick is both timeless and modern. The true story of love straddling a cultural divide resonates  across the ages with the charming echo of everything from Romeo and Juliet to Roman Holiday, and in The Big Sick it is presented through the prism of the melting pot called America in the high heat setting of the 21st century.

Only the first third of the film has romance as its focus. Kumail and Emily meeting, breaking down barriers and forging a bond (despite both claiming that they have no interest in a long-term relationship) is a gateway to introducing the characters and the context of a society where diversity is the norm. Nanajiani and Gordon as the writers do not shy away from laying bare the awkwardness, hesitancy and missteps that give every relationship its uniqueness.

With Emily spending a large part of the rest of the movie in a coma, the heart of the film shifts to the relationship between Kumail and the two sets of parents, and he has work to do on both fronts. With his own parents Kumail is living a lie, playing along with their conservative culture and Sharmeen's dedicated agenda to arrange a partner, while in reality he has no intentions of honouring their traditional wishes. Ironically, it is only when Kumail starts to understand the hurt he is causing to one prospective but outspoken Pakistani bride that his awakening starts.

Even more complex is the morass Kumail navigates with Terry and Beth. As an ex-boyfriend of their daughter, from a foreign culture and with vague career prospects, Kumail is initially the last person Terry and Beth want to deal with their daughter in a coma and fighting for her life. But some of the sturdiest bridges are built under extreme duress, and the gradual thawing of the relationship between the young comic and the distressed parents comes with humour, unexpected support, and genuine affection.

Kumail's life as a stand-up comic and his motley crew of fellow comedians waiting for their big break provide plenty of colour and opportunity for laughs. The drama in Kumail's personal life clashes with his professional need to make his audience forget their troubles, adding to the film's emotional resonance.

Clocking in at just over two hours, the film is a bit longer than it needs to be, and all three acts pre-hospital, in-hospital and post-hospital would have benefitted from some trimming. But this is minor quibble. With compassion and a smile, The Big Sick celebrates the best of what everyone can do: see past superficial differences, persevere in pursuit for what really matters, and overcome adversity.

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