For every moment of hilarity in The Big Sick, there are almost as many moments that fall flat and keep the film from truly soaring. The nature of the events prevent the film from ever being a non-stop riot but, at more than two hours long, it certainly needed somebody to take charge of the editing process to trim the fat and delete those moments that just don’t work. Perhaps a result of the freedom afforded filmmakers by Amazon, one of the newest players on the feature film production landscape, it is only this lack of oversight that prevents this autobiographical tale from emerging as a bona fide comedy classic.
In following the clichéd rom-com narrative trajectory – boy meets girl before encountering obstacles that must be overcome before true love can ultimately prevail – The Big Sick demonstrates just how clichés are, perhaps more often than not, reflect societal truths. After all, this is based on the real life story of Kumail Nanjiani, a comedian and actor perhaps best known for his television roles in Portlandia and Silicon Valley, and his wife Emily Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nanjiani and served as a producer alongside Judd Apatow. Whilst Nanjiani plays himself, Gordon is played by Zoe Kazan, who was an absolute delight in Ruby Sparks and is wonderful again here. Even though she spends a large portion of the movie in a coma, Kazan is the standout amongst the cast, which also includes Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Zoe’s parents, Terry and Beth. In fact, like many stand-up comedians who make the transition to acting, Nanjiani demonstrates a limited emotional range; every line is delivered in the same deadpan style that makes his comedy club routines so funny but doesn’t necessarily work as well in moments of high tension or emotional upheaval. That is not to say Nanjiana isn’t funny though because he is hilarious at times and the sheer hopelessness of his life – the tiny apartment he shares with fellow comedian Chris (Kurt Braunohler), his sad sack one-man show, the never ending efforts of his parents to set him up in an arranged marriage – provides plenty of laughs. His romance with Emily also delivers some fun moments as both parties try to convince themselves they aren’t actually in a relationship.
Of course, once Emily becomes aware of the expectations Kumail’s parents have with regard to him marrying within his Indian culture, the relationship falters and it is soon after splitsville that Emily is admitted to hospital and placed in a coma. Needless to say, there is a tonal shift at this point as Kumail finds himself undertaking a bedside vigil and trying to ingratiate himself with Beth and Terry amid concerns that Emily may never recover and, if she does, may have no interest in rekindling things. It is a challenge balancing the humour with the gravity of Emily’s situation, but the laughs are generally confined to the awkwardness of the interactions between Kumail and Zoe’s parental units, but with Kazan’s absence from the action quite palpable, this second act becomes somewhat laboured and certainly could have been condensed without losing any of the charm that permeates the best moments of this relationship borne from a mutual concern about someone they love.
With regard to the portrayals of Kumail’s family, one can only assume that – exaggeration for comedic effect aside – the characteristics bestowed upon his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), father Azmat (Anupam Kher) and brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) are reasonably accurate in their representations even though they might be seen as racist caricatures if presented by somebody for whom this wasn’t a lived experience. Given that we know our two lovebirds end up together, there are no surprises in how the story pans out and, as enjoyable as it is, some judicious cutting could/would have eliminated the bum notes and elevated The Big Sick to a truly memorable 90-minutes of comic gold.