The Big Sick: Cosmetic Comedy

** ½ (out of 4)

The overused saying that “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” has long been a favorite citation of angsty high school grads, old people, and overworked therapists. In the case of the protagonist in The Big Sick, however, the cliché actually proves remarkably apt. The story’s premise is that Pakistani-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani (played by himself) meets, dates, and eventually falls out with a girl named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). Soon after their separation, however, he learns that she’s been placed in a medically induced coma. As you can probably imagine, there’s nothing like the prospect of death to motivate a round of soul-searching – and lest you think this all sounds far-fetched, the events in question really happened with Nanjiani and his wife, the author Emily V. Gordon.

On one level, The Big Sick seeks to serve up the typical rom-com mixture of laughs and awws. Nanjiani and Kazan bounce rejoinders off each other with an enviable ease, and the movie features plenty of awkward but hilarious exchanges. Yet the script, which was co-written by Nanjiani and Gordon, doesn’t stop there: it also tries to tackle tricky questions regarding multiculturalism. Nanjiani, after all, is brown-skinned, and even though he’s not religious, he still has to put up with the anti-Islamic sentiments of some of his fellow citizens. Moreover, the movie also makes clear that Nanjiani’s Pakistani family doesn’t care much for American mores; his parents (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher) insist on pushing him into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman, and they threaten to disown him if he gets any other ideas. Even if Gardner weren’t bedridden, we see, Nanjiani would already have his hands full trying to navigate the interracial dynamics of their relationship.

With all these topics on its plate, The Big Sick certainly can’t be faulted for lack of ambition. What it can be faulted for, however, is its eventual inability to give each of them a thorough, meaningful treatment. As mentioned, the movie takes care to highlight the disagreements Nanjiani and his family have with regards to marriage. Yet after a crucial scene in which they’re shown engaging in a tense verbal argument, the film punts on resolving their conflict until the credits, where we’re abruptly treated to a picture of Nanjiani and Gordon dressed in Pakistani wedding gear and made to assume that Nanjiani and his parents somehow worked their differences out. Equally unilluminating, moreover, are the movie’s attempts to show how Nanjiani deals with Islamophobia and other societal prejudices. The script’s insights on this subject are usually packaged into light bursts of comedy – Gardner’s father (Ray Romano), for instance, asks Nanjiani about his “views on 9/11” – that, aside from coming off as window dressing instead of substantive commentary, quickly fade into the background after one or two scenes.

Even the bread-and-butter romantic aspects of the story don’t hold water. For one, the movie’s sense of rhythm disorients. It spends so much time on Gardner’s illness and recovery that her sickness eventually begins to feel like an artificial hindrance instead of a meaningful, character-building obstacle. (Meanwhile, the story relegates her eventual reconciliation with Nanjiani to a one-minute closing scene and the aforementioned string of wedding pictures in the credits.) Yet the bigger problem with Nanjiani and Gordon’s script is that it never makes clear what Nanjiani sees in Gardner (and vice versa) aside from a partner in flirtatious banter. What interests do they share? What do they like doing together? This lack of character development ensures that the self-examination Nanjiani undergoes during Gardner’s coma comes off as both distant and superficial; the sympathy you feel for them is the polite kind you’d inevitably feel upon hearing that someone is in a coma.

None of this is to say that The Big Sick is bad. At its best moments, in fact, it elegantly proves that rom-coms can be funny without resorting to raunchy sex scenes. But these moments are scattered and diluted by a storyline that largely proves to be a muddle. And while it’s refreshing to see a mainstream movie in which the Urdu-speaking characters aren’t terrorists, the idea that such inclusion compensates for the film’s otherwise cursory treatment of its material is tantamount to suggesting that Rogue One’s interracial cast makes up for that movie’s substanceless plot. Far from being a movie that “reboots the rom-com” (as a headline in TIME hyperbolically proclaimed a few weeks ago),then, The Big Sick actually falls closer to the description provided by Kyle Smith of National Review – “a perfect 85-minute movie that inexplicably takes up two full hours.” Given Nanjiani’s manifestly good intentions, that’s a true shame.

***

The Big Sick (2017)

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano

Running Time: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language, including some sexual references.”

Produced by: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel

Written by: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon

Directed by: Michael Showalter