The best creative output is all too often autobiographical, but art doesn’t always do the best job of imitating life.
Comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, playing a thinly-fictionalized version of himself, quickly falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), in turn based on Emily V. Gordon, the film’s co-producer, writer and Nanjiani’s spouse. Taking place over three largely tonally distinct Acts, after their charming meet-cute the focus shifts when Emily, in events partly consistent with the real-life experiences of the film’s creators, becomes sick and is placed in a medically-induced coma, heralding the entrance of Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
Described by Nanjiani as about 65% accurate, it’s a rare and hugely favourable occurrence for a true-to-life story to not only to be so original and endearing but for one of it’s central figures to take up the mantle as its star, Nanjiani’s performance wreaking with every bit of pathos inherent in his own hugely affecting tale. All the more compelling for the knowledge that he himself has experienced the film’s events and is abjectly baring his soul for all to see, the frequent instances of Nanjiani and his comedian friends bantering at any given time, an inevitable staple of this film given Judd Apatow’s role as Producer, rather than relying on the familiar collegial jibes and one-liners are just that bit more engaging for the characters’ flagrantly self-abasing, reflexive approach throughout, itself central to what makes a great deal of comedy so appealing.
The casting of Romano in this regard unsurprising, the successful stand-up comedian, once the figurehead of his own long-running sitcom centred on the life of ‘Ray Barone’, is barely distinguishable from his on-screen persona that audiences have become so accustomed to over the years, though some of the later, more emotive sequences do offer a bit of range beyond his recognisably amiable shtick. Kazan, off-screen for much of the action, still manages to impress a formidable presence within The Big Sick, itself none too distinct from her appearances in What If and other recent rom-com outings. As good as each are and no match themselves for Nanjiani, the comedian adeptly drawing on his own experiences to carry some of the film’s most dramatic moments, none are in Hunter’s league. The veteran, conversely imparted comparatively little of the film’s dialogue, owns both her character’s more stirring segments and laugh-inducing encounters, front and centre for one of the film’s funniest and most tense scenes during a set at the comedy club.
The emphasis on stand-up comedy one of the film’s greatest strengths, it is too one of The Big Sick’s greatest weaknesses. With Nanjiani proceeding to tell us exactly what he thinks via a routine ala Seinfeld, the episodic approach to the film’s events where we are offered passing insights into the characters and their reactions to events unfolding, not unlike the dynamic stand-up performances evidenced throughout the feature, are immediately impactful but allay the interminable sense of unease central to and naturally flowing from the premise. This is bar Kumail’s recurring one-man performance piece at a small local theatre which crops up throughout the film, a misjudged, largely unfunny addition that could just as well have sacrificed its goings-on for a greater focus on the main action.
Possessing comedic and dramatic potential that could just as well have been if not better conveyed by feeding off the film’s uniquely involving plot through staying with one conversation or locale for more than a few minutes, Emily or her father dropping a bombshell on Kumail or any of the frequent sequences with the latter’s own family could have been that much more powerful had events not been wrapped up almost as quickly as they began.
As for Kumail’s familial surroundings, one of The Big Sick’s better innovations is the not infrequent focus on the tensions with his family, Kumail being expected to marry a Pakistani-Muslim woman, many of whom, at his parent’s behest, just happen to drop in when their son is over for dinner. The family, if frequently funny and too engaging for proffering a dynamic not often seen in a mainstream cinematic release, largely deliver a regrettably one-note performance, being either bent on or incensed at Kumail’s marital prospects. The film’s bite-size approach to it’s scenarios does The Big Sick little favour in this respect, broadly diluting what is otherwise consuming, thoroughly relatable and fairly complex fare to fleeting encounters and episodes that play better in trailers than they do in a feature film.
Still most enjoyable for Kumail’s relations with the respective families and the inescapable knowledge of just how true to life this remarkable story is, The Big Sick, for all its flaws, is a touching, distinctly better-than-average rom-com well worth the trip to the cinema.
The Big Sick is in cinemas now