The Big Sick (2017) (Review)

ODEON treated audiences in the UK to The Big Sick for their latest Screen Unseen, a surprise screening event that only reveals the identity of the film you have booked tickets for when the lights dim and the footage begins to roll. Before the secret screening, I knew very little about The Big Sick (for starters, I had been calling it the wrong name) and aside from the generally positive buzz it was picking up in conjunction with its limited stateside release, it had otherwise passed me by. Was it worth slapping down a fiver (or in my case, my Limitless card) for this film? Or should I have called in sick?

The Big Sick follows the blossoming relationship between Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan), an interracial couple struggling to contend with cultural differences, clashes and understanding. When Emily is struck with a mysterious, life-threatening illness, Kumail is forced to reconsider whether love is worth losing his family, particularly after meeting Emily's unusual parents - Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). With his career as a comedian stalling and his love life being prescribed to him by his well-meaning but pushy parents, Kumail must decide what is best for him in this terrific little gem of a film.

Based on Nanjiani's real-life story, The Big Sick is as heartfelt as they come. What may be dismissed as a sentimentality to begin with quickly progresses into something far more stirring than its simple premise would give it credit for, crafting a rather lovely and warming picture. It shifts between genres  and tones so efficiently, pushing you close to tears moments after it makes you giggle out loud. By merging romance and comedy - two of the most demonised and divisive genres in Hollywood - The Big Sick manages to eclipse the competition, crafting a well-tuned and sharply balanced picture that is far more accessible by utilising both genres simultaneously, rather than relying on one more heavily than the other. 

In fact, the script in general is where a lot of the success lies. As well as the more typical themes of identity, family and love, beneath the surface exists some potent themes and thought-provoking content that instals the film with an air of sophistication and prevents it from simply towing the line. Cultural differences on both sides of the coin rear their ugly heads and provide some heady issues to explore. Racism, unfortunately still an issue in society, is thrust into the spotlight when an audience member heckles our protagonist during a stand-out routine, questioning his affiliation with ISIS simply because of the way he looks; before this, a well-meaning but woefully misguided conversation with a white character sees our lead questioned about his opinion on 9/11. 

Rather thankfully, the reaction to this comment in the buzzy screening was one of genuine shock, eliciting a number of gasps - but the stun was even more pronounced when he retorts with an ill-advised joke about Muslim's losing '19 of our best guys' in the tragedy. In only a game of Cards Against Humanity would this sentence be otherwise found. However it demonstrates the film's terrific ability and enthusiasm to tackle taboo and tricky themes that many other films would skate over or completely ignore. Arranged marriages in the Asian community are scrutinised in the same environment as white, middle-class privilege is, proving that the film really seeks to challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions some may hold in our society. Real-life couple Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, who pen the script, bring their real experiences into the frame smartly and satisfyingly and the film is all the more stronger because of it.

The Big Sick features four fantastic lead performances and a few decent supporting roles to boot. Kumail Nanjiani is very sharp as... himself. He remains endearing and loveable throughout, awkward and charming as he attempts to navigate culture and personality clashes, determined to please his family but live and love the life he wants. His wonderful chemistry with Zoe Kazan - who gives a solid performance herself - sells the film for all it is worth, ensuring you are as invested in their relationship as possible. They each have a firm understanding (probably due to Nanjiani's lived-in experiences) of how far to push certain scenes so, even in the more dramatic and darker scenes, the comedy is infused just enough to prevent a tonal derailment while never detracting from the meatier moments when they arrive sporadically.

Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are equally as impressive, initially building a wall in front of them that eventually begins to crumble as they spent time with Kumail over the course of the film. We see these characters mature in their outlook and develop their relationship, in an attentive and natural manner. It rarely appears forced and it always feels rather raw. The ying to the others yang, Hunter perfectly handles the emotion while Romano provides most of the humour, although each are willing to partake in the other's craft. The supporting cast is padded out with a fine mix of talent, such as Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, although Kurt Braunohler is the certified scene-stealer, spot-on with his comedic timing and firing on all cylinders throughout.

Michael Showalter presumably operates on a minor budget with this piece (no production budget has been confirmed or estimated for the Amazon Studio release yet) but the results are skilled and neat. It purposely strikes you as a personal and natural story - at times almost as if it is in the style of a documentary - without flashy movements or conceit. This helps to cultivate the very raw, natural and honest story you are presented with, striving to demonstrate and place the story of the lovers at the centre. After placing Emily and particularly Kumail at the forefront, it genuinely feels that you know them as a friend by the time the credits rolled, from the long-running jokes to their personal quirks; while the performances are to thanks for that, it is Showalter's solid direction and helming of the ship that keeps it on track.

Showalter's direction, alongside Michael Andrew's chirpy and generally lovely score, bring the package together tremendously. It is instantly clear that those working on the piece have a genuine desire and care to make the film as successful and polished as possible, providing an instantly loveable, charming and delightful picture. It may not scream to be seen on the big screen and box office big or small, it is destined to find an audience some place down the line - just make sure it's sooner, rather than later please.

The Big Sick is weakest though when it comes to wrapping up its story. Simply, the third act does not understand how best to bow out, spending a long time playing and teasing fake endings for a solid twenty minutes. It becomes rather frustrating that after such a sturdy and pleasant experience, the ending is somewhat botched in the search for the most satisfying ending. Because of the false starts and general pondering of the final third, the film feels unnecessarily inflated and in need of a tightening that would represent a stronger end product. 

A handful of minor issues with the first act aside (most notably its slight conflict in discovering and asserting the most appropriate tone at the beginning), The Big Sick is a sturdy romantic-comedy that strays from conventions just enough and goes deeper than most with its thematic material to impress and stand-out. It is warming, thoughtful and charming film-making, presenting the light and fluffy elements of the premise alongside the sharp comedy and sobering themes that come with the true life story. It is very easy to dismiss the genre, but when it is as smart, well-written, clever and utterly delightful as this, can you really moan about it?

The Big Sick understands when the penny drops and lets it fall with a knowing wink and nudge, proving that comedic timing runs in the blood of the film, thanks to the wonderful actors that participate. It really is quite the delight, with a sharp and smart script that goes deeper than expected and impacts you harder than imagined. It leaves you feeling warm and glowing, a pick-me-up if you, like our female lead, are a little under the weather...


Summary: The Big Sick is a delightful little gem that deserves you time and attention. Its smart script, brilliant cast and potent themes challenge your expectations and present you with the perfect pick-me-up for the next rainy day.