The Big Sick

US (2017) Dir. Michael Showalter

I am not going to lie to you – had I known this critically acclaimed film was produced by Judd Apatow I would have given it a wide berth as I have never got on with his films, with the *possible* exception of The 40-Year Old Virgin. Instead, I was seduced by the high praise from critics and film fans alike and decided to give it a go based on that. Did I make a mistake?

Based on a real life scenario it tells of Pakistani born stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) now based in Chicago, along with his strict Muslim family, who are constantly trying to marry him off. One night during a gig, Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) a white girl in the audience jokingly heckles Kumail. Afterwards they meet up and hit it off, entering into a relationship which Kumail can’t reveal to his family.

Kumail and Emily eventually split when Emily resents being kept a secret from his family but shortly after she is taken ill and Kumail is the one called to the hospital, where he pretends to be Emily’s husband to approve emergency procedure. Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) arrive and are not impressed with Kumail based on what Emily told them, but their shared concern sees a bond form between them.

Apatow may have only produced this film but it is very much in his style, right down to the obnoxious, foul-mouthed characters, pseudo-edgy comedy and attempts to appear as a relevant contemporary fable but ends up dealing in clichés. That last part may seem a bit harsh given that it is based on true events scripted by the two principals but dramatisations do rely on following certain narrative rules which are exposed here.

The real life Emily is Emily V. Gordon, or Mrs. Nanjiani as she is now known, which isn’t a spoiler since the promotion for the film makes no bones about this tale covering the courtship period of their relationship. We have little reason to dispute any of the central facts presented here so I’m not going to be churlish and level any accusations of overt embellishments to the details and take them at face value.

But this doesn’t prevent the characters being horribly unlikeable and affected that it deters any emotional investment in them from the start – maybe not Kumail and Emily necessarily, but Kumail’s comedian friends, especially CJ (Bo Burnham), a colossal dick and an unfunny one at that, constantly telling fellow stand-up Chris (Kurt Braunohler) he should quit comedy.   

Also unable to endear themselves to us are Kumail’s parents, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) and Azmat (Anupam Kher), devout intransigent Muslims whose main role seems to be to antagonise everyone onscreen and off. It is the stifling dogma they exercise in refusing to allow Kumail to follow his own path in life and be a “good Muslim” son that ruins his relationship with Emily when Kumail is forced to keep his comedy vocation and Emily a secret from them.

It’s Romeo & Juliet for a modern, multi-cultural society and one that has blighted many a love story for other couples too: dating outside of one’s religion (I’m glad I’m an atheist – no such petty burdens here). Emily and her parents don’t give the tiniest of hoots but they are not the problem, but Emily is hurt when she learns that while her folks want to meet Kumail, his parents don’t even know she exists.

As a fan of world cinema, I have a respect for other cultures and their traditions, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them. One bugbear for me is the stubborn adherence to outdated indoctrination, in this instance arranged marriages, a subject featured in a number of films and never fails to infuriate me.

Kumail has a box full of photos of prospective Muslim brides chosen by his parents that he wants no part of, and when the truth finally comes out, he is told he is a bad son, selfish and wrong before being kicked out of the family. I should really praise the actors playing the parents for being so convincing in their roles as they do make your blood boil and show no contrition for their inflexible attitude and heartless despatch of their son whilst preaching about the sanctity of family.

Providing the other drama is the illness that becomes life threatening for Emily which is only treated thanks to Kumail, who was at the hospital every day next to Emily’s parents, yet she still refuses to see him. Terry and Beth initial dismiss Kumail based on Emily’s reports but his stubborn resolve to be there wins them over, and they actually bond at a stand-up gig when a heckler tells Kumail to “go back to ISIS” and Beth rallies in his defence.

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter’s arrival as Terry and Beth brings the film to life just as the hitherto coasting storyline picks up pace. They are still portrayed as flawed Apatow-esque archetypes but the chemistry of the two actors bursts off the screen and adds a more realistic dynamic to the proceedings.

Kumail I’m afraid to say has little charisma or screen presence which isn’t good for a comedian, but he handles the confrontations with his family well enough to root for him. Zoe Kazan ironically perks up when playing sick Emily, otherwise she plays her as a typical twee American millennial, talking in that annoying whiny, croaky voice and full of self-righteous indignation.

So, I find myself in the minority in not finding The Big Sick to be the hilarious and heart warming film everyone else did. I didn’t hate it like I thought I might but I couldn’t find any connection with the characters beyond feeling angry for Kumail for having such supercilious parents. At least it all worked out in the end for Kumail and Emily so good luck to them.