“The Big Sick” Looks Like a “Boy-Meets-Girl” Romantic Comedy, But Wait


AUGUST 3, 2017

The second-birthday celebration for Exact Change Today is over, and it’s time to get back to work.  And happily, we begin Year #3 on a very big high.

Ever since “Annie Hall” won the Best Picture Oscar over “Star Wars” 40 years ago, there’s been no classic “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets girl” romantic comedy to follow in its footsteps as a Best Picture winner.  There have been a few comedies with romantic elements that have been nominated — “Tootsie,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “La La Land,” but that’s about it.

So the emergence of a new contender with that classic “Annie Hall” template is exciting news indeed.  Ever since it premiered at Sundance in January, Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” which garnered rave reviews (currently 98% favorable on Rotten Tomatoes) has continued its buzz through the film’s theatrical run which began in June.

Written by Emily V. Gordon and her husband, actor Kumail Nanjiani (of the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley”), “The Big Sick” is a fictionalized version of their courtship, which endured some bumps and bruises along the way that would challenge any relationship.

Nanjiani plays a vaguely accurate version of himself, a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago who one night is heckled by a young woman in the audience.  After the set, Kumail is ready to read the riot act to the heckler, Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), but he is so smitten by her that they hook up that night and immediately begin to date seriously.  Boy meets girl.

However, Kumail has a secret that he hasn’t revealed to Emily.  He’s Pakistani (no, that’s not the secret) and comes from a strictly traditional Muslim family, which shares the sacrosanct practice of arranged marriages.  His father Azmat and mother Sharmeen (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both terrific) expect that Kumail will honor this tradition, so whenever he is dining with them, after dessert, the doorbell will ring, and Sharmeen will unconvincingly say “Ooh, I wonder who that could be?”  In comes a parade of eligible, attractive and intelligent Pakistani women, in whom Kumail is definitely not interested.  He throws their audition photos in a cigar box and forgets about them.

Unfortunately, one day Emily comes upon that cigar box full of photos and realizing Kumail’s deception, breaks up with him on the spot.  He is devastated.  Boy loses girl.

Whether boy finally gets girl in the end, however, is where “The Big Sick’s” suspense lies, because Emily is suddenly hospitalized for a mysterious ailment that doctors say may prove fatal.  Upon hearing the news, Kumail rushes to the hospital where he meets Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) who want nothing to do with him because, to them, Kumail is the man who broke their daughter’s heart.  As Emily’s condition continues to deteriorate, Kumail surprisingly finds himself beginning to bond with Terry and Beth, and it is there that “The Big Sick” zooms off into an entirely different direction and becomes an unpredictable story that you haven’t before seen.

The key to the success of “The Big Sick” is the script by Nanjiani and Gordon — their screenplay feels lived in, as if this couple have actually said these jokes and had these fights.  “The Big Sick” is not a “setup/joke, setup/joke” kind of comedy but instead flows, giving the impression that it is not even aware that the film is supposed to be a comedy.

Ironically, it is one of the funniest comedies in years, and I would guess that producer Judd Apatow had something to do with that.  While being an accomplished writer and director himself, Apatow is said to be a remarkable script doctor who urges his writers to throw out jokes that don’t advance the plotline, paring the screenplay down to its bare bones.  (Sometimes Apatow should take his own advice — his 2009 Adam Sandler comedy “Funny People” runs 40 minutes longer than “Dunkirk”!!!!!)  Likewise, at a shade under 2 hours, “The Big Sick” could be more effective if it lost another 10 minutes of its own.

Nanjiani acquits himself well in a difficult role, but the real acting challenge was handed to Zoe Kazan as Emily, who must create enough of an impression in Act 1 so that when she disappears later in the story, you still know why Kumail goes to such lengths for her.  And in that job, Kazan nails it.

But if you’re looking for who might be the real players for Oscars, search no further than previous award winners Romano (Emmy) and Hunter (Oscar).  Yes, their roles as Emily’s parents are almost irresistible, but they are written with such depth that it takes both actors to places that I’ve never seen them explore before, particularly Romano.

And, yes, you’ll be talking about the jokes as you leave the theater (particularly a shocking 9/11 joke that garners an enormous amount of guilty laughter — you’ll know it when you hear it).  But it’s a tribute to “The Big Sick” that it’s the characters about whom you’ll be talking for months to come.