By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: Not quite a romantic comedy, it’s the belated coming of age story of a fledgling, near-middle age comic who’s afraid to stand up to his parents.
Director Michael Showalter charmed in 2015 with Hello, My Name is Doris, a little gem that gently explored the challenges of developing new relationships in the autumn of one’s life. He mines similar character-based quirks in The Big Sick. A couple of big differences result in a slightly lesser film: Showalter co-wrote Doris (with Laura Terruso), which revolves around a knock-out performance by Sally Field. The Big Sick features some standout supporting turns, but is anchored by a much less-experienced lead actor: Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley). Nanjiani works hard to instill emotional depth in his character, a struggling stand-up comic dealing with his ex-girlfriend’s unexpected health crisis, and partially succeeds.
Nanjiani literally stars as himself, albeit a version of himself from a decade ago. At Sick‘s outset, Kumail begins a romance with a heckler at one of his shows. His ultra-traditional Pakistani parents expect to set him up with a Muslim woman for an arranged marriage. As Kumail’s relationship with Emily (Zoe Kazan) grows more serious, he finds himself hiding her from his folks. He fears losing their acceptance once they discover his girlfriend is a non-Muslim Caucasian. On top of that he has long stopped actively practicing his Muslim faith, preferring to play video games rather than pray.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Emily falls ill with a mysterious (but potentially deadly) illness shortly after she and Kumail break up. The discovery that Kumail regularly meets with potential wives during his family get-togethers is too much for her. Guilt leads him to accompany Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), as they hold vigil at the hospital. Much of Sick, sold as a romantic comedy (only partly accurate), actually finds its female lead in a coma while the male lead slowly, sometimes awkwardly, bonds with her parents.
The screenplay was co-written by Nanjiani with his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon. It’s based on their real-life story. Gordon doesn’t appear in the film—Kazan makes for an affable surrogate. Perhaps Nanjiani should’ve resisted temptation and allowed someone else to be cast as Kumail. It’s not that Nanjiani is that unsteady in the role. But he’s pushing 40 while playing situations he experienced in his late-20s. Kumail’s fears of defying his parents, and his emotional callowness in general, might’ve been more endearing if played by a younger actor. Even Kumail’s fledgling stand-up career (glimpsed in mostly-superfluous snippets—alongside even more superfluous snippets of comic pals Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler), feels more pathetic than it likely would in the hands of a younger upstart comic.
That said, The Big Sick still sails confidently on the strength of sharp dialogue and strong work by Hunter and Romano. Kumail sits at the center of the story that is really about his own belated coming of age—not so much the story of his relationship with Emily. Unfortunately, as written, Kumail is somewhat of a cipher. He’s exceedingly pleasant, with all the inherent dullness that often accompanies such geniality. Again, Nanjiani does pull off some effective key moments (including an onstage breakdown during a important performance intended to double as an audition for a big comedy fest). The Big Sick is a very good film that might’ve been a great one with a bit more fine tuning.
The Big Sick images: Amazon Studios; Lionsgate