‘The Big Sick’ Has a Heart, but Remains Unsatisfying

Nanjiani, who was good in Silicon Valley finds it difficult to emotionally rise to the occasion

A still from The Big Sick starring Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani

The protagonist of the romantic comedy The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani, who’s playing himself in the movie, would have a tough time answering, “Who are you?” The reasons for that are many. He’s told his parents that he’s preparing for LSAT (Law School Admission Test). He is not; he wants to become a stand-up comedian. When his parents tell him to do his daily quota of prayers, he goes to the basement with mats and switches on the timer on his phone. During those five minutes, he practices cricket shots, watches videos on the phone, does everything else except pray. His mother wants him to be a “good Muslim and marry a Pakistani girl”. Kumail can’t care less.

Born in Pakistan, Kumail — the real one — moved to the U.S. at the age of 14. As is often the case with immigrant families, he and his parents saw a different country and reacted to it and its people, differently. For Kumail’s parents it was a first-world country, where money could be made, fortunes could be changed; their relationship with it was transactional. Kumail, on the other hand, both as an adolescent and as an adult, perhaps saw something different: a new home. Unlike his parents, Kumail didn’t have the weight of history on him; he spoke to America as he spoke to Pakistan. And, as he found out, America wanted to chat. Eventually, he fell in love–and, much to his parents’ discomfort, not with a Pakistani but with an American, a girl called Emily (whom he married in real-life and who also co-wrote this film).

The Big Sick is centered on that love story. But that, too, is mired in complications. After dating for a few months, Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) break-up. The reason? Misunderstanding due to cultural differences. He sees Emily, and her parents (who know about the break-up), a few months later when she’s in coma. Strapped to tubes, and in a comatose state, Emily is oblivious to Kumail’s presence, but her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are not. Given that Emily and Kumail didn’t part amicably, her parents are uncomfortable around him, and ignore him initially. And it’s here that the film finds its heart, its emotional mileage.

The Big Sick has an impressive structure. We soon understand that Kumail and Emily’s relationship —and their break-up — is a ruse of sorts; that it’s a gateway to something bigger: understanding how people of different cultures come together. This motif is beautifully explored in the relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents, transitioning from cold indifference to heartfelt companionship. It’s also worthwhile noting that many Bollywood romantic dramas, most notably Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, have gone the same route, emphasizing the foundation of an Indian (or, as is the case here, Pakistani) marriage: that it’s essentially a meeting of families. But, at the same time, The Big Sick is fundamentally different. Here, the film’s hero, Kumail, finds himself disconnected from his family even though he loves them, and instead, finds compassion, acceptance, and solace in someone else’s family, among people of a different country, different culture. It’s refreshing to see that a romantic drama isn’t just about romance, that it’s also about something fundamental, something humane: how we should see and treat the ‘other’.

We live in times of blatant xenophobia (evident not just in India and Pakistan, but also the U.S.) and, for that precise reason, The Big Sick’s sincerity is admirable. And yet, that alone cannot make it a good film. The Big Sick is ironically let down by the man responsible for it: Kumail. For someone who is the centrepiece of a movie, Kumail’s acting is astoundingly pedestrian. Kumail displayed reasonable comic talent in Silicon Valley, the TV series. However, in The Big Sick, Kumail, for the most part, looks terribly out of depth. Even the comedic scenes, his forte, don’t help his cause (his straight-faced acts, in particular, do not work). He is especially shoddy in scenes that require emotional heavy lifting, frequently causing you to tune out of the film. However, you can at least see Kumail and filmmaker Michael Showalter’s intent here; some scenes look deliberately off-key, informed by awkward pauses, stilted dialogues, as if trying to mimic the rough edges of life, but they feel unconvincing, unsatisfying. Kumail’s performance is all the more disappointing because the rest of the cast—Kazan, Romano, and Hunter—puts up an impressive show. Romano, in particular (playing the role of Emily’s father who has a soft-spot for Kumail), is easily the best part about The Big Sick, lending much-needed weight to this film. (Even Kher, otherwise an assured performer, is just about okay.)

The film also lacks a solid central conflict, which flattens it out and makes it less compelling. Had it been a character-driven piece, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but The Big Sick is primarily a story-driven drama, where the stakes feel frequently absent (or, at least, less pressing). But, more importantly, The Big Sick disappoints because it fails to go the whole hog. Several key scenes edge near a moment of revelation (where we’re about to understand the characters or their situations better) before getting cut short abruptly. It’s a bizarre filmmaking choice where the director and the writers want to keep the audiences at a distance from the movie. The Big Sick lets go of its strange preoccupation only in the last 10 minutes, but by then it’s too late.

We need progressive politics more than ever in cinema—that’s not even up for debate. But we can’t compromise on good filmmaking. Because there’s a whole world between intent and execution.

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