Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, February 23, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Big Sick (2017)

I miss “@midnight” way more than I ever thought I would. You wouldn't think a Comedy Central game show hosted by an obnoxiously upbeat Chris Hardwicke, about slumming stand-up comics making fun of internet memes, would be worth much. Yet the series was surprisingly consistent comfort food for me. Moreover, it introduced me to a number of stand-up comics I probably wouldn't have heard of otherwise. Such as Kumail Nanjiani. While Nanjiani was never my favorite performer on that show but he's clearly on his way up. “The Big Sick” was partially based on Nanjiani's own life, especially his relationship with wife Emily V. Gordon and her struggle with illness. The film would become a surprise hit, the highest grossing independent film of 2017. It's ridden a tide of hype that has now gone all the way to the Oscars.

Nanjiani stars as himself. As a child, his devoutly Muslim family immigrated from Pakistan to America, settling in Chicago. As an adult, Kumail struggles with his heritage. He's an atheist but lies to his parents, saying he still prayers. He puts up with his mother's awkward attempts to pair him with a good Pakistani girl. He tells mom and dad he's studying to become a lawyer when he's actually pursuing a career as a stand-up comic. One night he meets Emily, a vivacious (and white) woman he quickly falls for. He refuses to tell his parents about the relationship, leading to the two eventually breaking up. That's when Emily falls into a strange illness, being put into a medically induced coma while fighting an infection. Kumail stays by her side during this, eventually forming a bond with Emily's eccentric parents.

“The Big Sick” was primarily sold as a romance. This is, weirdly, one of the weakest aspects of the film. Nanjiani is playing himself and does fine when dealing with the film's comedic aspects, or when playing against his family. However, his limitations as a dramatic actor show when forced to deal with Emily's illness. An on-stage breakdown comes off as mawkish. Zoe Kazan, a wonderful actress, plays Emily. She also spends most of the movie in a coma, limiting Kazan's opportunities to show her ability. Moreover, the circumstances over which the two break up is totally bogus. Instead of explaining the situation to her, the two argue and escalate in that kind of contrived, false conflict that is common to romantic-comedies. Emily's initial refusal to accept Kumail's affections, following her awakening from her coma, just makes her look like a bitch. This prevents the emotional conclusion from being totally convincing.

A problem with “The Big Sick” is that it tries to do too many things. It's a film about Kumail, Emily, and the illness that nearly comes between them. It's about Kumail trying to prove himself in the world of stand-up comedy. It's also about Nanjiani struggling with his family and his cultural identity. (This last point is most evident in a subplot about Kumail writing a one-man play about his life, which digresses greatly into the history of Pakistan.) Kumail's relationship with his family provides probably the film's most stereotypical segments. It's a typical story of a son bristling against tradition and the path his parents set out for him. Now, there's some funny moments here. The terribly failed dates, with increasingly goofy women, provide some laughs. Especially in a scene where the parents discover the girl can speak Urdu. However, Kumail's parents and brother never rise above being broad caricatures.

This is in contrast to Emily's parents, who are easily the highlight of the film. Holly Hunter plays Beth, Emily's mom. Beth is a fiery, powerful person. She's initially deeply skeptical of Kumail. However, after he wins her over, she becomes fiercely protective of him. When a heckler in a club attacks Nanjiani because of his race, Beth violently leaps to his defense. Hunter is hilarious and heartfelt. But that's expected, because Holly Hunter is always fantastic. What's surprising is Ray Romano as Terry, Beth's dad. Romano brings a funny nervous energy to the part, a man who is seemingly always in an awkward situation. In time, Terry reveals himself as a earnest, self-effacing man. Romano is excellent, showing unexpected depth as an actor while maintaining the likable comedic vigor that made him a star.

The most minor focus of “The Big Sick” is on Nanjiani's life in the world of stand-up comedy. This allows for many small roles from Kumail's real life friends and contemporaries, essentially playing themselves. Kurt Braunohler is very funny as Kumail's stoner room mate, frequently stymied by what's happening around him. Bo Burnham shows up as the hackiest, and most successful, of Kumail's comedy friends. Aidy Bryant also appears, getting a few stray laughs to herself. “The Big Sick” focuses briefly on the behind-the-scenes turmoil of the stand-up scene though the goal everyone is gunning for – to impress a random talent scout – seems a little too easy.

“The Big Sick” is a likable movie. Despite grappling with some heavy issues, the mood remains light. Perhaps this is because we know Kumail and the real life Emily are currently married, removing a degree of tension from the story. The film is too ambitious, trying to squeeze too much story into an already lengthy two-hour run time. The romance is not as effective as the script needs it to be. Yet it's funny enough to keep the viewer watching, especially when Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are on-screen. I honestly would've preferred to have seen Hunter or Romano get nominated over the screenwriters but I guess that's just me. [7/10]

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