24th Nov2017

‘The Big Sick’ DVD Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher | Written by Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani | Directed by Michael Showalter

big-sick-dvd

Michael Showalter, best known as an actor and writer on the Wet Hot American Summer TV series, directs this gentle culture clash comedy, based on the real-life experiences of (screenwriters) Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley).

We meet Kumail (Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) around 18 months before the latter is put in a coma. He’s a stand-up in a run-down comedy club; she’s a Psychology student. More of a meet-awkward than a meet-cute, his chat-up lines are cheesy and she’s kinda goofy. They hit it off, and we get the standard highlights reel from the next few months of their relationship. Then Emily discovers a box of photos of other women. These are the potential wives chosen for Kumail by his Muslim parents. (An arranged marriage worked for his brother (the hilariously hangdog Adeel Akhtar), so why not Kumail?) He fails to empathise with Emily, and their breakup is messy. Soon after, Kumail discovers that Emily has fallen ill and she needs to be placed in a medically-induced coma.

Like any good modern rom-com, it’s time to Meet the Parents. Emily’s folks know all about Kumail and how he hurt their daughter. Initially shellshocked and in no mood for reconciliation, they’ll have to come to terms with the fact that Kumail isn’t leaving Emily’s bedside. The main bulk of the film thereon concerns Kumail’s faltering attempts to win their approval, whilst also fighting off the advances of a stream of Pakistani propositions.

Showalter’s style is slightly more realist than usual Judd Apatow-produced fare, matching the film’s heavy central themes: life-threatening illness and unbending Asian family culture. But The Big Sick never delves too deep. When it comes to Kumail’s family, after some depressingly convincing circular conversations (Kumail is “selfish” for his unwillingness to submit to his community’s expectations), the dangerously patriarchal nature of his parents’ beliefs is rendered as nothing more than an emasculated husband and a nagging wife.

The awkwardness we see between Kumail and Emily never fully clears due to a lack of chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan. Like Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings, this is partly because of the gulf in the quality of the leads’ performances. Kazan is a nuanced actor with the smarts to avoid potential Pixie Dream Girl clichés. Sadly, Nanjiani lacks range. He’s fine in the milder moments – bumbling yet likeable – but unconvincing in those bittersweet scenes that demand angry outbursts or emotional collapse.

Typical of comedies from the Apatow stable, the film could do with a fiercer edit. It breaks through the two-hour barrier thanks largely to the improvisational tenor of the script. Thankfully, it is a script which often hits hilarious highs. Kumail’s dreary one-man show, about the history of Pakistan and the rules of cricket, is a deadpan delight; and we get a proper belly laugh with a completely inappropriate joke about 9/11. Lengthy portions are, however, conspicuously laugh-free. Everything involving the comedians in the club is tiresome, relying almost entirely on Michael McIntyre-level gentle observational humour. The concept of comedy being a bulwark against the ravages of life’s tragedies is but another theme touched upon but not explored.

The funniest scenes involve the parents. When Emily’s parents return with Kumail to their daughter’s empty flat, there’s a hint of Noah Baumbach’s dryness in their inane commentary, and in Terry’s pseudo-significant rambling. Hunter has some unhinged fun, even if her performance borders on the broad at times. Meanwhile, in the home of Kumail’s parents, there’s an amusing running joke about his mother constantly interrupting dinner to introduce another would-be bride, who just happened to “drop in”.

Considering its weighty subject matter, The Big Sick is M.O.R. through-and-through, with little at the extremes. It should be applauded for avoiding easy gross-out or mawkishness (both equally tasteless), but there was potential for something more daring here. Determinedly palatable, and signing off with little more than a “Be Yourself” Disney message, it breaks new ground with only the softest of baby steps.

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