‘The Big Sick’ is a cure for the cinema slump blues

The Big Sick (2017)

Directed by Michael Showalter

Every couple of years, a romantic comedy comes along that strikes the right balance between romance and comedy, tragedy and whimsy, laughter and pain. Writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon manage to find that sweet spot in “The Big Sick,” partly because it’s based on a true story…their true story.

Living in Chicago, Kumail (playing himself) makes a scant living as an Uber driver on the nights he’s not performing stand-up with his friends (Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler). When he meets a quirky girl, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), after one of his shows, Kumail takes her back to his place. But Kumail knows that his traditional Pakistani parents would disapprove of him dating an American girl, so he holds off telling them about his blossoming relationship. When Emily falls ill and her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) come to town, Kumail won’t be able to keep secrets any longer.

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This is Kumail Nanjiani’s big break, his defining moment. You can tell he’s committed to the role. But I have to wonder, now that Nanjiani has had his big feature film breakout, whether he can expect more roles in the future. Good for Hollywood for letting a Pakistani-born actor tell his unique story. But when the next great comedy is written, and it’s not written by Nanjiani or about a cultural divide of some sort, will casting directors give him a shot? Will he be able to just play a man, a man whose cultural identity is not written into the film? I hope so, because he deserves it. In his second small role this year (after a hilarious turn in “Rough Night”), Bo Burnham proves he can do more than immature YouTube clips. But Ray Romano and Holly Hunter don’t let the young’ins show them up. In pretty substantial roles, they bring their A-game—whether they’re cracking jokes or having serious heart-to-hearts, Romano and Hunter have this acting thing under control.

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“The Big Sick” starts off like a formulaic rom-com, and, to an extent, never really stops. All rom-coms are the same: people meet, things go well, then things don’t go well, and then it either works out or it doesn’t (but usually it does). Each new take has to inject something different into the story to set it apart. “Trainwreck,” the last great romantic comedy I can think of (and another movie produced by Judd Apatow), had the gender flip, with Amy Schumer’s woman-child loving sex and Bill Hader’s responsible doctor wanting commitment. “The Big Sick” has Kumail’s traditional parents wanting to arrange a marriage for their son, and Kumail’s obvious reluctance. But “The Big Sick” almost perfects the genre. Some movies seem like they’re released too soon, like they weren’t quite done incubating, like things could have been reworked or fixed up. You’re sad they didn’t take just a little more time to get it right. “The Big Sick” is not one of those movies. It was ready to come out. It’s genuinely, authentically funny. A kind of funny that you feel is rooted in reality, not conceived in the joke book of some writer who wants you to laugh at every other line. Nanjiani and Gordon, as writers, remembered to keep the sad parts there. Raw, believable dialogues between characters keep this from becoming too comedic for its own good. Your emotions run the full gamut, from laughing to crying and back again. Through it all, “The Big Sick” is undeniable entertaining. A real treat.

8.5/10

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