THE BIG SICK is a radical departure from the typical rom-com format. It’s actually smart. It feels honest, is often quite funny and the man isn’t depicted as a man-boy asshole. It’s based on the true story of a struggling Chicago stand up comic (Kimail Nanjiani as himself), whose day time job is driving a taxi, who falls in love with a heckler, Emily, (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. There are two complications. Firstly he’s Pakistani from a very traditional family (just a shade away from cliche), intent on arranging his marriage (to a nice Muslim Pakistani girl). And secondly, having whimped out and chosen tradition over love…parents over passion, his (now ex) girlfriend, Emily, succumbs to a life threatening illness resulting in a medically induced coma.
The arc of the story follows Nanjain’s initially forced, and eventually easy intimacy with her fraught and squabbling parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) as she lies in life support in a hospital; and his emergence from a life of hypocritical, dishonest duty – both to his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and to a dull imitative comedy style – to one of honesty and self assertion (while just about managing to avoid degenerating into a clichéd tale where “honesty is the best policy”)
There’s a vaguely sketched idea about the mutual distrust that exists between people of different cultural backgrounds; both sets of patents are small minded and wary of ‘the other’. But Kimail’s authorial voice is never cynical or patronizing. The result is a gentle, genial (if not laugh out loud) humor.
Kimail, I guess following the Woody Allen example, plays himself in the movie…which certainly gives his character a feeling of idiosyncratic ‘realness’. But he’s (and co-writer Emily Gordon) are better writers than he is an actor. His is bland dead pan style probably works well in stand up, but in this dramatic context, it kills a good many of his really funny lines. Zoe Kazan on the other hand is a bubbly, engaging presence and a great counterpoint to Nanjain’s low keyed style.
It’ll be interesting to see where Nanjain goes next. Because the story is so autobiographical, the danger is that he’ll follow the route of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and churn out “The Bigger Sick”. Or, we can but hope, he’ll segue into a writer who, despite the backing of Judd Apatow, can turn his funny observing eye into something that resembles fresh, intelligent, not (the typical) dumbed down frat house American humor.
THE BIG SICK, Dir: Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”). Writers: Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. With: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan (“Our Brand is Crisis”, “In Your Eyes”), Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher(“Silver Linings Playbook”. Cinematographer: Brian Burgoyne (manly TV series and sit coms)