That’s Why They Call It Love

3 Jul

Like so many single people of a certain age, Kumail Nanjiani is getting pressured by his family to get married. But there’s a “twist”: In traditional Pakistani Muslim culture, you don’t choose your spouse, it’s all arranged for you. And so, at every family dinner, a potential wife just happens to be in the neighborhood, and shows up right before dessert.

But Kumail wants nothing to do with that custom. Since moving to Chicago at a young age, he’s stopped praying and has been assimilating into American culture. Instead of becoming a doctor, he’s chosen a career as a stand-up comedian. (Fine. He’s also an Uber driver.) And, as the new movie The Big Sick begins, he meets an American woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan, writer and star of the excellent Ruby Sparks), and the two start dating.

Based on the real-life story of Kumail and Emily’s courtship, The Big Sick presents a slightly fictionalized version of what happened shortly after they broke up: Emily suddenly comes down with an illness that leaves her in a coma. Kumail finds himself regretting the breakup, and while waiting in the hospital for her to wake up, meets and develops a bond with her mother and father.

No, you don’t see that every day.

Directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris) and co-written by Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley) and his wife, Emily V. Gordon — a built-in spoiler: she lives! — The Big Sick is a much funnier film than that plot synopsis might imply. And it’s not because Kumail’s “character” is a comedian. It’s disarmingly funny, with its sharp comic edges poking fun at everything from race, religion, and relationships, to the state of healthcare and 9/11 (yes, 9/11), and hardly ever veering into cliché. (There are definite similarities to the way Aziz Ansari portrays his own culture clash on the excellent semi-autobiographical Netflix show Master of None.)

To wit, there’s one scene where Emily’s father, Terry (Ray Romano, excellent), tries to impart some wisdom to Kumail. He talks about how challenging it is to be a parent and a spouse. “Let me give you some advice, Kumail,” Terry says. “Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it ‘love.’” Suffice it to say, the reaction by Kumail cuts the moment down and makes it instantly funny because they both know how ridiculous a line that is.

But it’s not all played for laughs. Above all, The Big Sick is a sweet, heartfelt film about a completely awkward scenario, and a touching tribute to this family.

Acting across the board is great, but special mention needs to be made of Holly Hunter, who plays Beth, Emily’s mother. Unlike Kumail, who has kept the couple’s relationship a secret from his family, Emily has told her parents everything. So when Terry and Beth arrive in town, they’re a bit frosty to Kumail, to say the least. Especially her. But Beth eventually defrosts. In one particularly great scene, she suddenly and unexpectedly comes to Kumail’s defense when a racist bro heckles him at a gig. It’s bizarre and funny, heartbreaking and absurd, without ever hitting a false note thanks to Hunter’s dead-on performance and the fact that Nanjiani, Gordon, and Showalter recognize and respect the difficulty of these characters’ predicament.

Unlike many Judd Apatow films (he produced this one), The Big Sick doesn’t feel like it’s gone on too long. All credit for that goes to Showalter, whose sensitive direction is an impressive balancing act, resulting in a film that doesn’t lag and never loses its momentum — especially when it pivots from hilarity to something much more serious.

In a summer of formulaic action and comedy films, The Big Sick is an original romantic comedy with surprising depth. It’s a breath of fresh air and a definite must-see. Don’t miss it.

I’m giving The Big Sick a B+.

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