A Midsummer Movie Pick: 'The Big Sick'

The Judd Apatow-produced Sundance hit is infused with a deft touch that embraces lots of laughs along with some deep emotional waters.

By Laura Thielen July 20, 2017

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Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) with Zoe Kazan (Emily) in The Big Sick.

This summer’s movie-going has had its pleasure moments —Wonder Woman, Baby Groot, Baby Driver’s electric opener with Ansel Elgort laying down his chauffeur moves with a cool groove and the shattering formal beauty of The Beguiled’s final shot. But for consistent start-to-finish delight, The Big Sick stands out, hitting all the right notes that make for an immensely satisfying trip to the movies.

In their enthusiasm, many reviewers have rushed to peg The Big Sick as a “romcom.” For anyone put off by reductive marketing labels, you’d do well to reconsider this “based on a true story” tale. Yes, there’s a romance; and, yes, there are lots of laughs. But, like the best film experiences, The Big Sick explores so much more along the way. It’s a glass-half-full kind of movie about life and all that fills that goblet: one’s sense of identity/creative purpose, the inherent attraction/terror of emotional intimacy, the connection/complication of family, culture difference, life’s unexpected and truly scary bits…and love. And, oh yeah, humor, that essential elixir that helps us to shoulder it all.

Writers Emily V. Gordon (a family therapist-turned-writer/producer) and Kumail Nanjiani (a comedian and regular on HBO’s Silicon Valley) are married in real life. Set in Chicago, The Big Sick is their story. Or rather, the early, fragile chapters of their story. Kumail (played by Nanjiani) is a 30-something Pakistani-American trying to make a go of stand-up comedy while dodging his parents’ more conventional expectations. He meets Emily (an outstanding Zoe Kazan), a grad student studying psychology, when she “heckles” his routine. While the attraction is real and their chemistry undeniable, each is constrained—for a different and eventually revealed reason—by a severe case of commitment aversion. When one of them undergoes a frightening medical emergency, The Big Sick shifts from a summer multiplex “meet cute” to something much larger, layered, and, ultimately, truer.

With a visual sense that veers more towards functional that stylish, director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris starring Sally Field) is no cinematic showman. But Showalter (also a comedic actor) breathes vibrant life into this story where it matters most: in the authentic spot-on performances he elicits from a uniformly strong and likeable cast. Solid in his charm, Nanjiani’s Kumail has a lot of growing up to do; and over the course of the film, that’s what he does, one vulnerable, awkward step at a time. But it is Zoe Kazan as Emily who shines. Whether erupting into a dazzling smile or crumpling into tears, her face instantly communicates the complex nuances of a heart in flux. 

From the hospital staff to Kumail’s comedy club cohorts (including real-life funny people Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) to a comely stream of unexpected dinner guests, Showalter fleshes out distinct, believable worlds and seamlessly flows them together. At the center of Emily and Kumail’s respective universes are their families. A very fine Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, and Adeel Akhtar bring spine and spark to their roles as compassionate but fiercely protective guardians. Indeed, some of The Big Sick’s best scenes unfold in shared family moments, especially those involving food and side servings of prickly honesty and genuine heart. 

In life and comedy, timing is everything. Infused with a deft touch that embraces the laughs along with some deep emotional waters, The Big Sick unfolds across cultures and generations to tell a truthful love story. The payoff is one lovely gem for a midsummer’s eve. 

The Big Sick, an Amazon Studios and Lionsgate release, is now playing at the Isis Theatre in Aspen, Movieland 7 in Basalt, and the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale. 

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