‘The Big Sick’ brings an elevation of the romantic comedy genre to FilmScene

The Big Sick

FilmScene — opens July 14; members-only screening July 13

Video still from ‘The Big Sick.’

The best true stories are the ones that feel too unlikely to be true but too honest to be made up. There is a moment in The Big Sick, the newest film from director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris, The Baxter) and producer Judd Apatow (Girls, Bridesmaids), when the film morphs into something unexpected. It doesn’t exactly yank the rug out from under you, but it does gently pull it from its usual location in hopes that you stay on for the ride.

That ride is one that you will ultimately recognize in its general ups and downs and expected triumphs and hurdles, but it’s winning cast and sincere, honest writing make it one of this year’s most charming film experiences to date.

Real-life spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon co-wrote the script based on the actual events surrounding their unique courtship. Kumail, who plays himself in the film, is a struggling stand-up comedian and professional Uber driver who grew up in Pakistan. After another uninspiring comedy gig, he has a meet-cute with Emily (Zoe Kazan, a wonderful actress who remains inexplicably on the fringes of fame) and they begin a quickly intense relationship that begins with a post-coital Uber ride and faces the inevitable challenges of Kumail’s cultural tradition of arranged marriages. It’s when Emily is hospitalized, and placed in a medically-induced coma, that Kumail is forced to address his personal/cultural conflicts while acting as caretaker for Emily’s distressed parents, played with grounded perfection by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

The film’s most deft and impressive quality is the honesty and humanity it infuses in its characters. Nanjiani and Kazan have true chemistry and the laughs feel organic in both execution and relatability, which isn’t always the case for director Showalter, an alum of MTV’s short-lived sketch comedy The State, whose sensibilities are often broader and less subtle. Nanjiani emerges as a real star and it is in no small part to the self-awareness and shoot-from-the-hip ease of his cinematic self-portrait, the heartbreaking gift of Kazan’s performance and a tone that ebbs and flows with the story’s journey rather than remaining static.

The whole film is smile-inducing, but while the laughs keep coming, they often make way for the occasional tear. This is when you know you are seeing something special. Your average romantic comedy will usually double-down on the romantic half, delving deep into melodrama before the merciful credits. But The Big Sick side-steps such pitfalls by not dwelling on the crisis or its emotional results, but rather exploring it through the complex reactions of the loved ones sitting in the waiting room.

Hunter and Romano, as parents advocating for their daughter while facing their own tumultuous coexistence, steal the film like it was an unlocked Ferrari with the keys in it. Their effortless banter and dry-deliveries (hers a razor-sharp southern quip and his a mumbled New York dismissive) provide the film one of its two perspectives on love and marriage. The second is the film’s primary subplot of Kumail’s family, whom he visits weekly for dinner so his mother can introduce him to various single Pakistani women to possibly wed.

His parents are played by stage-actress/teacher Zenobia Schroff and prolific character actor Anupam Kher, and they present marriage as a joining of families rather than simply a joining of two people. Kumail is not the most devout, but he plays along with his mother’s bridal search in an effort to be respectful — to both his family and his own culture. This alternate perspective on married life provides a truthful juxtaposition that leaves the film’s central romance at the apex of both examples and does so without judgement.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the film hardly reinvents the wheel in terms of romantic comedies and the much maligned tropes attached to its specific genre. The third act seems eager to makes sure they all get shoehorned in lest we forget that the film is, you know, a comedy. About a romance. Additionally, the obligatory “life-goes-on” themes as the film begins to wrap up feel a little contrived for a film that’s made no efforts to conceal its real-life conclusions. But the overall truth is that these minor grievances seem quite miniscule in a film that succeeds so grandly in every other aspect.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Hollywood machine, romantic comedies in general — about anything these days — and The Big Sick has some cynicism to share. However, a belief that this film will show you something that you have never seen before will most likely leave you disappointed and possibly tossing around verbal criticisms such as “overrated” and “cliche.” I would challenge such terms, as it’s important to recognize that there is originality and freshness in honing a genre, as well as in honoring it. The wheel was invented, yes, but it was also improved, perfected and improved again.

Film is ever changing and despite how stuck some genres may feel, a nugget usually comes a long to remind us that there is a reason we see these types of movies. That reason is usually an honest story told about people we care about that can reflect our own lives and show us someone else’s life as well. The Big Sick does all of that in spades. Nanjiani and Gordon open their lives a little bit and it’s a story worth peeking in on.

The Big Sick opens this Friday, July 14 at Film Scene, with an exclusive members-only screening on Thursday, July 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6.50-9, and are on sale now online or at the box office.

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