The Big Awkward
Yesterday, we took a look at a film that reveled in cringe to make some poorly delivered point about class difference. Today, we take a look at a film that managed to take awkward, uncomfortable situations and make something with surprising amounts of heart and depth…even if it takes a little while to get where it needs to go. Written by Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a very loose retelling about Nanjiani and Gordon’s own courtship and the drama that came with her illness and their families’ very different cultural backgrounds. You know, funny things…that are only funny to people not experiencing what the characters are going through.
So Kumali plays…well, Kumali, a stand up comedian in Chicago who strikes up a romance with one of his patrons, Emily (Zoe Kazan). This is slightly problematic for Kumali on account that he comes from a Pakistani family and his parents (Anupam Kher & Zenobia Shroff) have been aggressively trying to set him up in an arranged marriage with other Pakistani women. The courtship with Emily goes fine until she discovers Kumali’s family’s beliefs and the fact that he hasn’t even told his parents of her existence. They break up and don’t see each other until Emily winds up in the hospital due to a strange illness and has to be placed in a medically induced coma. While Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) tell Kumali that his presence is no longer required (on account they know about the reasons for their break up), Kumali decides to stay anyways until Emily is healthy once more. A strange friendship eventually develops between the three.
Let me get my negative opinion out first, as I do believe I enjoyed this film a lot; just not without a major asterisk next to that recommendation. You see, the first act of this film is dedicated to setting up Kumali and Emily’s relationship from their initial meet up to their break up. And while this is an incredibly important step in allowing us an audience to appreciate them as characters…it was also making me lose interest hard. I’m not sure if it was because I was not digging Zoe Kazan’s performance or if it was the fact I was getting annoyed with the couple’s push me, pull you dynamic when they first started dating. On top of that, I really wasn’t feeling the chemistry between these two either. Not sure if it was bad direction or poor interplay between the leads, but I just wasn’t feeling this romance.
Things really didn’t pick up for me at the beginning of the second act when Emily gets placed in her coma and her parents take center stage. Because color me impressed, but Ray Romano and Holly Hunter still got it after several years of flying under the radar. They end up having a great dynamic with Kumali, and together, they end up becoming the emotional core of the film. At first, things are naturally awkward given the circumstances of Emily’s conditions and the reason the pair broke up in the first place. But as the parents begrudgingly begin to talk with Kumali and see he is truly sorry for what occurred, they begin to open up to him…far quicker than even he was ready to bargain for.
There are some devastatingly frank discussions about family, loyalty, betrayal, and love that was simultaneously hard to watch but also completely enthralling. On top of that, you had some dry wit as the characters attempted to make jokes in order to steer the conversation away from pure melodrama, which the film often flirted with. However, having a bevy of comedic actors on hand to keep things grounded does come in handy especially in the more difficult scenes this movie has to offer. And trust me when I say there a few of them, especially when Kumali has to have a talk with his parents about his religion and the love of his life.
In a lot of ways, this movie reminded me of what Funny People aimed to be but never reached. It wanted to be a discussion about rising standup comics, the weight of popularity on a comic’s personal life, and attempting to recapture the golden days of the past. What it ended up being was a complete mess trying to juggle several heavy ideas, and failing to materialize any of them into a coherent and emotionally packing narrative. Oh yes, it also wasn’t very funny. Now The Big Sick isn’t what I call a laugh riot, but it adopts the tone Funny People had but actually provides a tightly focused narrative on a single comic’s relationship troubles between his family and his lover’s family.
The director is Michael Showalter, a second time director and long-working comic, and he manages to take Kumali and Emily’s script to get you to all the major emotional beats their script so very lovingly wanted to reach. Again, I hope he does learn to tighten up his first act in the future, because he genuinely seemed to get the right performances out of his wide range of actors most of the time. But major props are owed to Nanjiani, who continues his streak of impressing everyone with his strong writing skills and solid delivery. The production was clearly a labor of love for him, as I’m sure he was reaching into his own hardships when he was first starting in the comic industry and dating his future wife. I’m actually looking forward to him taking on more dramatic roles as opposed to sticking with comedy as I truly believe he has what it takes to make that transition.
While that first act was hard to get through, I can’t deny that I left The Big Sick with a strong, positive feeling. Therefore, I’m going to give this an enthusiastic…