Sundance Review: “The Big Sick”



There are certain movies that are so intensely personal, so fiercely credible that there’s no question they are based on true stories. “The Big Sick” is one of those films that lives and breathes authenticity. It feels authentic because it is authentic.

The story is based on the real life relationship between Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his girlfriend (now wife), Emily Gordon. The couple wrote the screenplay together and there’s an enormous feeling of tenderness surrounding the entire project. The story starts out with your average indie film meet cute at a comedy club but then gradually shifts its tone into a serious drama when, after a break up, Emily winds up in the hospital in a medically induced coma, fighting for her life. The film is a beautiful, accurate representation of unwavering love and devotion through a health crisis — among other things. The movie touches on everything from the day-to-day life of a young standup comedian to the cultural pressures of submitting to an arranged marriage simply because it’s a family tradition.

Nanjiani plays himself while the off-putting and quirky Zoe Kazan steps into the role of Emily. Neither of these actors are especially appealing to begin with (and their onscreen chemistry is far from believable here), but both do their best to sell the story — and it’s nearly impossible not to respond to their overall spunk and charm. The film’s standout performance comes from Holly Hunter as Emily’s stressed out mother. Hunter makes it look naturally effortless to create a character who is not only dealing with her daughter’s life-threatening illness but also coping with a cheating husband (Ray Romano), all while remaining a fired up and outspoken firecracker of a woman (the scene where she heckles a racist heckler at a comedy club will bring the house down). Romano deserves accolades too; he gives a subtle, convincing performance that balances humor with compassion.

The film is a little too long, with the first half taking a while to set things in motion. The second half dominates with the best part of the story, however. Once Emily ends up in the hospital, the movie shifts its focus to exploring the budding relationship between Kumail and her parents. Kumail is bonding with his ex-girlfriend’s family while at the same time his own family is disowning him for dating a white woman. This is where you have to appreciate and acknowledge that there’s some great original (and immensely credible) writing in this movie.

“The Big Sick” is heartfelt and heartwarming rather than snarky and sarcastic, which might shock many of director Michael Showalter‘s longtime fans (especially considering the tone of previous material Showalter has written, directed and starred in). The film has a similar feel to his 2016 film “Hello, My Name is Doris,” but it’s more of a non-offensive, crowd pleasing dramedy that isn’t too much of a challenge for your standard film festival audiences. While this is indie film 101, I think it may lack a universal appeal that will resonate with multiplex audiences (I can practically see the mis-marketed ad campaign now: “see the outrageous new laugh-a-minute comedy from powerhouse producer Judd Apatow!“).

Luckily there’s an overwhelming amount of tenderness surrounding the entire project, and the abrupt shifts in tone is kept together by charming wit and kind hearted humor. This one will give you the cinematic warm fuzzies.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

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