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Posted: July 11, 2017

‘The Big Sick’ hits just the right notes

Written by: Wire Services
Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Courtesy of Lionsgate

Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Courtesy of Lionsgate

Kumail Nanjiani is the name of the struggling stand up comedian played by Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” which functions as a cinematic time machine for the comedian and “Silicon Valley” actor, and his wife and co-writer, Emily V. Gordon. This romantic comedy, directed by Michael Showalter, is a lightly fictionalized retelling of their love story, forged through the most extreme of circumstances – a coma. Cue up The Smiths, because the tagline for “The Big Sick” could be “girlfriend in a coma,” or rather “ex-girlfriend in a coma.”

What a difference a “woo!” makes. Before the big sick in the film, Emily and Kumail are a couple of young, hip Chicagoans, who meet when she heckles him at a show. They navigate the complexities of modern dating, each claiming they aren’t looking for a relationship. Zoe Kazan portrays Emily as idiosyncratic, pleasantly neurotic, and unfiltered. She’s a therapy grad student with a starter marriage under her belt, highly tuned to emotional nuance, while Kumail is happy to keep his life compartmentalized – he’s also a dutiful Pakistani son, having weekly dinners with his family, telling them he’s soon going to be taking the LSAT, and meeting women for possible arranged marriages.

So the coma isn’t actually the obstacle in their love story, but rather their cultural differences and their own hang-ups and baggage. Before she’s put into a medically-induced coma to combat a mysterious infection in her lung, they break up over Kumail’s reluctance to tell his family about his white girlfriend, and it takes this this life or death situation for him to realize he’s made a huge mistake. Just one more obstacle though: He has to win over Emily’s parents in the hospital, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.

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Nanjiani and Kazan are utterly charming as the romantic leads, and the collaboration between Nanjiani and Gordon on the screenplay allows for their distinct voices to shine, but for much of the film, it’s Nanjiani playing off Hunter and Romano, who are absolutely stunning as the scared parents. Hunter plays Beth as a diminutive pit bull of a woman. She’s fierce and fiercely protective, even, and eventually of Kumail too, nearly taking the head off a bro who hurls racist insults at Kumail onstage. Romano gives a career-best performance in a role that demands more heart and soul-baring drama than one-liners, and the jokes he does deliver are decidedly of the “dad” variety. Yet he’s absolutely stunning in this vulnerable role.

Nanjiani has spoken of his love for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and his respect for the writer Richard Curtis (as well as Hugh Grant – Kumail displays a high school photo of his poofy Grant-inspired hair in the film). Nanjiani and Gordon have nailed the formula that makes the tone of “Four Weddings,” and now “The Big Sick” so unique: poignancy balanced with self-effacing humor. It takes the emotions seriously but the characters’ ability to laugh at themselves keeps it from toppling into cheesiness. Nanjiani’s performance is the glue that holds this all together. He delivers dry, deadpan zingers, but he’s never above the real emotions.

It’s an exceedingly high degree of difficulty to hit the perfect chord of humor and heart, plucking the heartstrings just so, blending laughter and tears, and “The Big Sick” strums them just right.


4 stars out of 4
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter
Directed by Michael Showalter
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references.


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