REVIEW: The Big Sick

Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family’s expectations, and his true feelings. 

How Deep Is Your Love?

How deep should a review really go when looking at a film like ‘The Big Sick’? With the film’s plot based on their own relationship, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon’s heartfelt script went deep enough, receiving warm critical praise on it’s theatrical release last summer. But as the 2017 drip-feed of increasingly good movies draws to an end, does this romantic dramedy remain a must-see?

The latest hit from the Judd Apatow production factory, ‘The Big Sick’ raked in nearly eleven times its $5 million budget – not a bad haul for an ‘independent’ picture. Surely helping matters was one of the years best trailers, gleaning laughs by highlighting a cross-culture relationship whilst hinting at a deeper dramatic message.

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Funny People(?)

In the film itself, we’re introduced to our leading man as part of a group of stand-up’s on the verge of either breaking through or giving up, a set-up previously explored by Apatow himself in 2009’s ‘Funny People’.

The portrayal of this group of misfits feels real enough whilst producing the occasional laugh, and it’s this feeling – ‘realistic and occasionally funny’ – that lingers throughout the movie. Its a film that straddles three genres – comedy, drama and romance –  and whilst this enables it to never lean on tropes or revert to stereotypes, it never fully succeeds in telling an entertaining story in any of them.

Broken Promises

Whilst the occasional giggle is always welcome, it never feels like the film hits its comic stride. Most viewers will accept this if they’re also given something to chew on, but by stopping short of fully interrogating the base subject, the drama stalls too, especially in the first half.

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That’s ultimately the The Big Issue with ‘The Big Sick’: it doesn’t fulfil its promises. It’s not that funny; it’s not that dramatic; it doesn’t really shine a light on a relationship where the culture-clash is centre stage… But why not?

Roots Manoeuvre

The problems start with the script. By mining their own relationship for source material the writers not only found the essence of their story, they built their entire film around it. ‘The Big Sick’ joins a host of recent films whose origins are rooted in reality, and whilst these roots make for charming foundations, they often become anchors that stop their stories from flourishing.

Of course, real life has been, is, and will be a great starting point for countless screenplays, but here we have another example of how a writers closeness to their material arguably prevents a script from evolving in the most funny, thrilling, or entertaining way.

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Lazy Leads in Need of a Chemistry Lesson

It may sound harsh to call the central performances typical of the comedy-drama’s current climate, but that’s exactly what they are, and things don’t improve with the clear lack of chemistry between Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan.

In 2017, we don’t need our ‘heroes’ to stop a thief or save a child to root for them, but they do need to be likeable. Whilst Nanjiani’s character is written to capture our hearts through sympathy rather than valour – his job with Uber consolidating his comedy dreams – the fact we feel sorry for him doesn’t make him the strongest protagonist.

Worsening matters, Kazan’s passable performance as whiny grad student Emily is even harder to get behind, and the spark when these two hook up is more of a muted fizzle. That’s fine if it’s played that way for laughs, but the primary issue with ‘The Big Sick’ rears its head again during theses not-so-tender scenes: it’s ain’t that funny.

Authentic, Nuanced and Easy

The arrival then, of Emily’s illness quickly followed by her concerned parents, is more than welcome.

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Having surprised audiences last year in HBO’s ‘Vinyl’ (cancelled before it could realise it’s difficult second season), Ray Romano impresses once again. His performance as Terry is tender, funny and raw, whilst as Beth, Holly Hunter confirms her second coming after last years underrated turn in ‘Strange Weather’.

These two actors ignite every scene they’re in, either together or individually, and their character’s relationship is authentic, nuanced and easy. Stealing the show and overshadowing the films central romance, Emily’s parents also draw the best from Nanjiani (both as character and actor) in the scenes they share with him.

Structural Damage

Essentially, Hunter’s Beth and Romano’s Terry replace Kazan’s Emily when she’s hospitalised, and perhaps if the courtship act of ‘The Big Sick’ were boiled down to it’s best, and the awkward ‘meet-the-potential-in-laws’ scenes expanded, the film would live longer in the memory.

 

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Although the entrance of the best characters feels overdue, these structural oddities also work in the film’s favour. By eschewing standard genre pacing, events such as the traditional rom-com break-up occur far earlier than expected, bringing an unpredictability to proceedings. If only these subversion’s had been consistently intentional, as opposed to just necessary (the break-up must happen before Emily’s sickness strikes), then the film could have been an entirely fresh premise.

‘The Big Sick’ is a lightly comic look at the cultural struggle facing a quirkily awkward couple, further challenged by a mystery illness and the sudden introduction of potential ‘in-laws’. The problem is, it’s not only lightly comic, but lightly dramatic, lightly entertaining and, with a few notable exceptions, lightly performed.

In the end, whilst it’s perfectly watchable, most critics have been incredibly generous to a film that, already over-reliant on subplots and secondary characters, never delves deep enough to fulfil its true potential.

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‘The Big Sick’ is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and to stream online on Monday 20th November 2017 in the UK. 

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