Friday, July 14, 2017

A Healthy Admiration for “The Big Sick”

The Big Sick is not the most inviting of movie titles. Too many other films of varying quality have started out with the same two words. The Big Chill, a poignant 1983 ensemble drama about the reunion of some Sixties activists, immediately springs to mind. But my much-battered Leonard Maltin guide lists pages of others:  The Big Country (1958 Hollywood western extravaganza), The Big Doll House (sleazy 1971 women-in-prison exploitation flick from the Roger Corman film factory), The Big Easy (1987 crime yarn set in New Orleans), The Big Fisherman (1959 religious epic about the life of St. Peter), and so on. And let’s not forget classics like The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.

Whatever its title, though, The Big Sick is worth watching, both for its robust heart and for its keen eye for cultural differences. This film can be described as a romantic comedy in which an immigrant culture with strict matrimonial standards clashes against the far more casual American style of mating and marrying. This description, though, makes The Big Sick seem like a Pakistani version of the amiable but lightweight My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s script has far more on its mind than a meet-cute at the start and lots of wedding hoopla at the end.

Yes, Kumail (the film’s star as well as its screenwriter) does have some lively culture clashes with his old-school Pakistani parents, who foist on him a steady stream of Pakistani-American lovelies in full expectation that he’ll choose one and settle down to matrimonial bliss. This part of the film, though hilarious, is somewhat caricatured, especially his lovely mama reacting with feigned surprise to each young lady who just happens to be passing by as dinner is served. Even amid all the laughs, there’s some poignancy here: young women desperate to be brides; a young man who can’t bring himself to tell his parents that he’s already fallen for someone of a different ethnicity altogether.

The Big Sick is Kumail and Emily’s actual love story, and it’s a doozy. They meet at a Chicago comedy club when she reacts loudly to his stand-up routine. They mesh, despite their radically different backgrounds, because of a similarly warped sense of humor. After they’ve hopped into the sack together, she turns him away, quipping, “I’m not the kind of girl who has sex twice on the first date.” He, accused by a heckler of sympathizing with Islamic terrorists, admits that 9/11 was a tragic day: “We lost 19 of our best.” Things go well; then things go badly; then they break up . . . and that’s when she’s rushed to the emergency room, and enters a medically-induced coma.

The beating heart of the film is Kumail’s growing devotion to the comatose Emily, while he also forges a complex relationship with her worried parents. Holly Hunter and (of all people!) Ray Romano are full of surprises in these roles: she feisty and frantic with fear; he simultaneously hopeful, sad, and wracked with guilt. In short, they’re completely believable as human beings trying to cope with the possible loss of the person they love most. Like every parent who’s sat at a hospital bedside, I felt their pain. And also, thank goodness, their joy. Because this is a movie that earns its happy ending.

I shouldn’t overlook Zoe Kazan, who triumphs as the screen’s version of Emily. The daughter of two much-lauded Hollywood writers, she wrote and starred with real-life boyfriend Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks, another offbeat romance that brings a summer smile to my face.

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