Saturday Features

While you were sleeping

- OBIE SHRESTHA

Sep 16, 2017-One fateful night, while doing his routine at the club he works at when he’s not driving for Uber, dweeby Pakistani-American comedian Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) notices pretty psychology student Emily (Zoe Kazan) by way of a “woo-hoo!” on her part during his performance—she insists it was a gesture of support, he tells her that all loud comments, even the positive ones, amount to heckling. The two hit it off over post-show drinks at the bar, and end up spending the night together in Kumail’s modest little bachelor pad. That first night turns into two into three and so on, until, a few months in—despite both claiming no interest in serious commitment at this particular point in their lives—they find they have almost inadvertently become a full-fledged couple. 

This would’ve been a good thing, except that Kumail’s parents (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) have always expected him to marry a Pakistani Muslim girl who has their stamp of approval. And he has long indulged these expectations by meeting with all the prospective brides they have picked out for him—a new one just casually “dropping by” every time he goes round to his parents for dinner—although he’s never gone any further than accepting the inevitable headshots they give him, all of which he’s kept in a little box. It’s when she finds this box, full of pictures of strange women, that it finally dawns on Emily why Kumail has been so reluctant to introduce her to his parents, or indeed meet hers—he doesn’t, and has never, seen a future for them. Outraged at being led on, she swiftly dumps him and storms out.

As a dejected Kumail tries to resume life as he knew it before Emily, an unexpected event pulls him right back into her world—and right smack into contact with her folks (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano)—all ultimately contriving to make him rethink having given up so easily on something so rare and remarkable as what they had. 

Directed by Michael Showalter, The Big Sick follows most of the broad beats of your typical romantic comedy, but with a bit of a twist. You see, screenwriters Nanjiani and Emily Gordon are a couple in real life, and the story is based on their actual courtship—with obvious embellishments here and there, of course. Partly owing to that knowledge, that a version of this really happened, partly because of the gentle but determined way in which it tweaks formula from within, and partly because of some terrific performances by the cast, The Big Sick manages to leap over most rom-com pitfalls to offer a moving, honest, and often very funny portrait of a couple’s first wobbly steps together. 

Plot-wise, there aren’t a lot of surprises or too many twists here, nothing that the promos won’t have already let on, in any case. So it’s to Nanjiani and Gordon’s credit that even as they work within a rather conventional structure, leading up to what is more or less a foregone conclusion—it’s not like there’s a possibility of the two characters not ending up together—they manage to pack the journey there with a great many authentic, intimate details that give the story a certain specificity. 

Part of this has to do with how gamely the film charts the theme of inter-cultural relationships—and that of the immigrant experience on the whole—particularly as it relates to the American context, a topic that is always relevant, but feels even more timely at this juncture. We watch as Kumail struggles between what he’s personally grown to want and believe in as a young, highly-acculturated Pakistani-American, and what his family expects him to want and believe in—a struggle that we suspect intrudes into all aspects of his life, not just his romantic relationships. 

While that theme certainly gives the film a touch more weight than your typical Judd Apatow venture—the man is only a producer here and might not have had a direct hand in the writing, but his influence on the material and presentation is clear as day—there are a few places where it visibly stumbles. For instance, while it’s enjoyable to see the contrast between how at ease Kumail is on his own time, with Emily and his friends, and how he instantly stiffens when at the table with his parents, clearly used to pulling backand keeping things in, the treatment feels a little simplistic on occasion. 

From the get go, it becomes obvious that we’re supposed to rule out Kumail’s family’s anxieties as hopelessly old-fashioned and delusional, but it would’ve been nice to have a rather more nuanced and less caricaturish approach to that end. Indeed, if one compares the portrayal of the two sets of parents in The Big Sick, it is clear who the film is siding with and who gets shorter shrift: only Kumail’s brother, played by Adeel Akhtar, has been sketched with any complexity in mind, but his screen-time is minimal at best. 

Speaking of screen-time, Nanjiani himself has the largest chunk of all, and though I’m still not sure the Silicon Valley actor possesses the sort of acting chops required for the lead of a full-length film, he’s amiable enough here, considering the added pressure that must come of playing yourself. He has great company in the preternaturally natural Kazan, the attraction instant and intense between them. But it’s Hunter and Romano who prove the most memorable, and are responsible for some of the funniest bits, in the film. Romano, with that trademark nasal drawl and nervous tics, is especially on form as the clueless dad—placating us with his monotone deadpan so that the rare emotional wallop he doles out is felt even more keenly. 

The Big Sick is proof that the rom-com genre has not run completely out of steam yet, and that there is still room for indulgent love stories, so long as they are able to strike a decent balance between the familiar and the new. 

Published: 16-09-2017 11:52

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