Movie Review: The Big Sick
R | 2h
Director: Michael Showalter
by Jason Koenigsberg
What is turning out to be the sleeper hit of the summer, The Big Sick is a good formulaic romantic comedy and the best use of a giraffes as a metaphor for love. What it is not is a social commentary on the Muslim-American experience in a post 9/11 United States, or the healthcare system, nor is it a realistic story of struggling twenty-somethings and their financial issues. It is a missed opportunity at all of that when it easily could have been all of those. Instead, The Big Sick focuses on the story of two people and the culture clash they have to deal with from their families, but it does it so well, you are not going to think about what it could have been. It is nothing new but everything is done just right. The fact that it is all a true story of writer and star Kumail Nanjiani’s life makes it extraordinarily more gratifying.
It opens up with images from Pakistan as the audio of Nanjiani’s comic routine about his Pakistani roots plays over those images and the opening credits. They are then juxtaposed with establishing shots of Chicago so the audience knows where our main character came from and where he is now. The premise is basic enough, Muslim brown boy meets American white girl, they start dating, despite family issues with their different cultures, deal with family and societal pressures with dating and marriage. Say things they regret to each other, then the girl gets sick, ends up in a coma and the boy gets close to her American parents. It is a story of two people in love and their respective families, nothing more.
But the reason The Big Sick is so good is that it does practically everything else right. It is well directed by Michael Showalter, an alum from MTV’s The State and he put just the right amount of foreshadowing in to give the audience clues what will happen. He also provided a great reveal at the end with his use of images and sound to elicit surprise from the viewers and did a great job framing our main character as looks through a window in a hospital door. The Big Sick also has great minimalist set design where we really get to know our characters from the interior design of their apartments or lack thereof. The screenplay co-written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon does not manipulate the audience nor does it let them off easy when it could have. It presents their real life courtship in a surprisingly realistic way that does not feel overly imbued with stereotypes and cliches. The run time does go on a little too long and some scenes could have been cut short, but everything in the script works. There are only a handful of terrorist jokes, probably five at the most. The scripts biggest sin was how it glossed over the Muslim-American experience when it really had a chance to shed some light on how millions of legal American citizens feel in our current political climate.
One of the biggest strengths of The Big Sick are the performances. Of course the lead Kumail Nanjiani is excellent since he is playing himself and reenacting his pursuit of his wife during an extremely difficult time. Zoe Kazan has been great in all of her earlier small roles, this is probably her biggest role as the romantic lead and she does a fine job with a significant amount of screen time lost to her character being in a coma. Holly Hunter is great as usual as her mother who has a very believable character arc that could have been an implausible 180 degree turn by a lesser actress. Surprisingly the best performance in The Big Sick is Ray Romano. This is the best acting of his career in a performance that is equally his funniest and his most sympathetic. He almost stole the show from everyone else. Romano was so good that the Oscar Race for Best Supporting Actor may start here with his role as a loving father. The performances across the board are terrific, even all the smaller parts like Nanjiani’s roommate, his fellow comedians, his parents and brother, and the owner of the comedy club played by David Alan Grier, making me wish he appeared in more movies. Plus, more symbolism of giraffes.