"The Big Sick” was written by its star, Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, based on the couple’s real relationship. They’ve been married since 2007.
Whether intended as an inventive breaking of the fourth wall, or just because it was easier, this is taken all the way to the main characters’ names, Kumail and Emily — although Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technique, but imagining future, similar movies starring characters named Kim, Khloé and Kylie, it sets a worrisome precedent.
Though billed as a romantic comedy, “The Big Sick” is more of an autobiographical drama in which comedy lightens the mood, softening issues perhaps deemed too serious to sell straight to the irony generation.
First, there’s the relationship itself, approached with enormous caution by Kumail and Emily, two late 20-somethings who are too cool to admit they even like each other, at least more than the attraction required for a one-night stand. So instead they verbally spar and promise that nothing is going on even though they meet again for more sex and more verbal sparring. Pretty soon, they’re dating, whether they want to admit it or not.
Then there’s Kumail’s devoutly Muslim family, Pakistani-Americans who get together for weekly dinners during which Kumail is forced to pretend that he’s praying. At the meal’s conclusion, he suffers an inevitable surprise visit from a random young woman his mother (Zenobia Shroff) wants to introduce him to. He’s expected to marry a nice Pakistani girl, not a blond, blue-eyed American like Emily. This, you may guess, becomes a problem.
Finally, there are Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who arrive when Emily gets sick. It’s based on real event, and in the movie Emily’s illness happens right after the couple gets into a big fight, the kind where you say thoughtless things and decide never to see each other again, whether you mean it or not. There’s a problem: Emily gets so sick that making up may be out of their hands.
It’s actually in this section where “The Big Sick” finds its most solid footing. Emily tells her mom and dad everything, and that means they see Kumail as a callous guy who withheld vital information and spurned their daughter. Hunter is feisty and fun as Emily’s mom — hell hath no fury like a mother whose daughter has been scorned. Romano acquits himself well as the more laid-back dad, going along with his wife’s disdain at first, but eventually bonding with Kumail while his daughter fights for her life.
It’s refreshing to see how Kumail resists exile — not with apologies or phony promises, but by being himself and stubbornly standing by Emily whether her parents like it or not. Although the manic-pixie-dream-girl-allows-guy-to-change story is a bit of a cliché, it’s effectively concealed as something else. The dialogue between Kumail and Emily’s parents is much more interesting and much funnier than the somewhat predictable way Kumail and Emily interact.
The drama sets up an anticlimactic conclusion, however, which would be a lot more palatable if the movie didn’t cross the two-hour mark. It’s just way too long to resolve a story that boils down to conservative, Old-World parents holding tightly to old customs as their son ventures out to embrace the new.
“The Big Sick” was produced by Amazon Studios, but unlike the online mega retailer’s award-winning “Manchester by the Sea,” it feels too small and polite for the big screen — it’s more like a new-media sitcom pilot that somehow escaped.
This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t any good. It’s just that it’s conventional and constructed around a familiar brand of humor seen everywhere from rom coms to Pixar films. And the movie is further watered down by safe jokes, mild and tepid as those on network television shows. The best comedy provokes.
The film was directed by Michael Showalter, known for performances in “Wet Hot American Summer” and the TV sketch comedy show, “The State,” but he doesn’t seem to have had much of an influence here. “The Big Sick” feels like the real Kumail and Emily sat down, punched up the highlights of their relationship and then were allowed to move forward without much resistance to the weaker parts in their narrative. The result is mildly entertaining and even charming at times, but not enough to fall in love with. (R) 124 min. S