I have always had this one rule that has been a sort of trigger while watching a movie: if this one thing happens, the film is going to be awful. One rule. It gets broken; I check out. And that rule is: if a film shows any part of Night of the Living Dead, I’m done. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing in the world to show, because it’s public domain, and it’s the instantaneous choice. As a filmmaker, I’ve used it myself and it took zero creativity and zero effort. Early in this film, Kumail has taken Emily back to his apartment and he starts showing her Night of the Living Dead, which she has never seen, evidently. Of all the films you could choose, why this one? I don’t care if it’s truthful. I don’t care if this is how their date went in real life. You’ve obviously got a larger budget than I did when I made my zombie opus. But, nope – Night of the Living Dead is what they chose and I did, indeed, check out briefly. Credit director Michael Showalter and writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon for forcing me to check back in.
The Big Sick is being called a romantic comedy, but I didn’t feel like it was a romantic comedy as much as it was a family drama. More time is spent with Kumail getting to know Emily’s parents than is spent with Kumail getting to know Emily. And truthfully, I was far more interested in the way Kumail interacted with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter than I was with how he interacted with Zoe Kazan. That’s not to discredit Zoe Kazan; she is enormously talented and charming and delightful here, but we know everything we need to know about her character after their first scene together. With Romano and Hunter, there are all of these layers and hidden subtexts that slowly reveal themselves. Maybe that’s just the skill level of Romano and Hunter at play there, but whatever the reason, I don’t know that I’d call this film a romantic comedy. It’s not When Harry Met Sally. It’s not My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s not Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s Four Characters and a Coma.
The plot is simple: Kumail (played by Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling comedian who falls for the lovely Emily (Zoe Kazan). Unfortunately, Kumail’s family is devoutly Pakistani and would disown him if he was dating a white girl, so he keeps it a secret, which leads to a rift with Emily followed by her almost immediately being placed in a medically induced coma because of some mystery infection that might kill her. Enter Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), Emily’s parents from North Carolina, who descend on the hospital and Kumail and end up striking up their own relationship with him. Will Kumail and Emily get together? Will they not? Will Emily survive? Will she not? Considering the film was written by Nanjiani and Gordon, we sort of already know that she’s going to be fine and that certainly dampens the stakes just a tad. Maybe they could have avoided an opening title sequence just to help hide that fact a little? Don’t get me wrong – I can use my imagination, but this is sort of the meat and potatoes of the entire story and we know from the beginning than the movie stakes are happily resolved.
This film aside, I’ve never really been a huge fan of Nanjiani as a comedian. There’s something about the low key nature of his delivery that has never worked for me. Here, that energy that doesn’t work in his comedy ends up working quite nicely when played out in a tight narrative. His chemistry with Kazan, Romano and Hunter is spot-on throughout and I particularly love his relationships with the fellow comedians at the club, including SNL’s Aidy Bryant and comedian Bo Burnham. But – take away the comedy, and Nanjiani struggles with the more serious moments he’s forced to relive, including a pseudo-breakdown at the club and a conversation with his parents. You can see Nanjiani working super hard, maybe too hard, to eke out those emotions which are obviously not natural for him as a performer. And, unfortunately, they did take me out of the moment because all I saw was a terrified actor being forced to do what terrified them and not quite managing to pull it off. And that made me sad. He’s also placed against some powerhouse performers, which certainly doesn’t help him pull it off.
Once Emily comes out of her coma, the film sputters. It doesn’t really know what to do or where to go and it takes way too long to get there. I felt like there were three different endings, and they drug out the whole “Will they or won’t they?” thing to the point of exhaustion. Again, maybe this is exactly how it happened, but movies are movies and sometimes you have to make changes that serve the reality of the story being told, not the story of the actual reality. I mean, how many times do we have to watch Kumail make a grand gesture, only to be shot down by Emily in cruel ways? What does that do except make us dislike Emily? By the end, when she shows up during his stand-up set, I was like, “I think you can maybe do better.” And that was certainly not the feeling I wanted at the end of this film…this long film…this film that could have been half an hour shorter. The Big Sick really needed less time to tell its story.
So, I don’t know – people seem to be loving this film, and it is quite funny. I laughed out loud on several occasions, many times thanks to Ray Romano and Aidy Bryant. It’s also charming; Kumail’s being an Uber driver was clever and works throughout. But it hardly reinvented the wheel in terms of movie comedies. Has it been so long since we’ve seen a decent romantic comedy that we entirely forgot what a romantic comedy is? If this had been released back in the late-90’s, it would have fallen to the middle of the pack. Instead, it’s being over hyped, as films tend to be, and that leads to nothing but disappointment for me. So, yes, I had a good time and I would recommend it and The Big Sick continues Michael Showalter’s impressive streak of directing successful mainstream comedies. But, it’s far from the greatest thing since sliced bread, and far less engaging than it should have been.