Scene & Heard: Reality takes ‘The Big Sick’ from preposterous to poignant

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Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily in “The Big Sick.” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.)

 

By Jared Huizenga – Contributing Writer

 

In a genre too often flooded with clichés and preposterous plots, sometimes it’s better to draw inspiration from real-life scenarios … even if those scenarios prove to be as unbelievable as the fake ones.

 

In the romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is an aspiring standup comic who spends his nights trying to get his big break on the stage and his days driving an Uber, pretending to be a devout Muslim to please his parents, and avoiding the Pakistani women his mother is trying to get him to marry … in an arranged fashion.

 

However, his life takes an unexpected turn when one night following one of his sets he meets audience member Emily (Zoe Kazan).

 

Flying in the face of what each claims they are or aren’t looking for, their sporadic encounters blossom into what appears to be a happy, healthy relationship. But there’s much more going on below the surface. Each has secrets they’re keeping from the other, and as they’re revealed they complicate the relationship.

 

Things get even more difficult when Emily falls victim to a life-threatening illness and Kumail is forced to meet her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), while his comatose girlfriend fights for her life.

 

If it weren’t (at least partially) based on Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, you would likely scoff at the premise of “The Big Sick.” It sounds utterly ridiculous, but the fact that it’s steeped in reality makes it fascinating. Helping the matter further is that Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the screenplay, rather than simply optioning the story and allowing outside forces to write it.

 

While I’m sure things were changed and/or embellished for comedic or dramatic effect, the fact that at least at its core it was truthful, added a dynamic the rom-com genre doesn’t often get.

 

The movie is funny, sad, infuriating, heartfelt, and keeps your interest throughout – even though you know that since Gordon and Nanjiani are married, so “Movie Emily’s” fate was never really in doubt.

 

The task of balancing that full range of emotion was handed to director Michael Showalter, whose most recent feature effort, “Hello, My Name is Doris,” forced him to navigate similarly frenzied waters. As he did there, he expertly navigated the sensitive subject matters – Emily’s illness, Kumail’s religion and culture, race relations, etc. – and the need for enough humor to keep it from being too heavy-handed … which it very easily could have been.

 

I’m not sure “The Big Sick” is the rom-com game-changer are predicting it to be, but it certainly has brought a ton of heart and originality to a generally stale and formulaic genre.

 

★★★★ of ★★★★★

Jared Huizenga is a freelance movie critic. Follow his work at www.facebook.com/JaredMovies.

 

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Ray Romano as Terry, Zoe Kazan as Emily, and Holly Hunter as Beth in “The Big Sick,” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.)