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Non-Review Review: The Big Sick

What is most striking about The Big Sick is the sense of authenticity, and not in the most obvious way.

The Big Sick was written by the husband and wife team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, loosely inspired by their own romance. Nanjiani plays a fictionalised version of himself, a stand-up comedian working in Chicago dealing with the weight of his parents’ expectations. Zoe Kazan plays a slightly more fictionalised version of Gordon, swapping out the surname Gordon for Gardner. The broad strokes of the story conform to how Nanjiani and Gordon came to meet and fall in love, and some of the barriers that arose between them. So The Big Sick is authentic in a very literal way.

However, The Big Sick is most striking in its small moments. While the movie is obviously built around the narrative arc of this true-to-life relationship, it perfectly captures all the weird little moments that define people. Nanjiani is a comedian by profession and Gordon is a psychologist, and there is a sense that both are keen observers of human nature. There are a lot of little touches in the film that resonate, that add a sense of convincing realism and gravity to a story that is dealing some very weighty material. (After all, the title of the film kind of hints at the stakes.)

The Big Sick is an astoundingly beautiful piece of work.

Full disclosure: Kumail Nanjiani is a very nice person. I don’t know him personally, but he very kindly agreed to write the intro to my upcoming book Opening the X-Files: A Critical History of the Original Series. Which I believe was in the middle of the production of this film, so I greatly appreciate that.

There is something very honest about how the characters interact with one another in The Big Sick. The larger narrative arc of the film is some ways a convention romantic comedy plot, one that conforms to many expectations about the genre. There is an element of culture clash, as Nanjiani struggles to reconcile his romance with the white American Gardner with his parents’ desire that he settle down and marry a nice Pakistani girl. There are secrets that threaten to undermine the relationship. There is a third act separation between the two leads.

Of course, there are ways in which The Big Sick is most pointedly not a conventional romantic comedy. The conventional third act misunderstanding and separation of the two leads stretches back into the second act, which leads to a number of interesting creative choices. The romance between Nanjiani and Gardner needs to be established a lot quicker, because that separation arrives a lot sooner. The inevitable confrontation between Nanjiani and Gardner about the former’s delicate balancing act between his needs and his family’s wants comes earlier than it would in another movie because of that.

However, The Big Sick is largely distinguished from other romantic comedies through the attention that it pays to its characters. The central characters in The Big Sick are all relatively well defined, with clear perspectives and viewpoints, with the audience always understanding what baggage they are carrying into a particular scene. The casting helps a great deal. When Nanjiani is summoned to the hospital to look in on Gardner, he finds himself confronted by her parents, including Holly Hunter as Beth. Few actors can convey quite as much with a simple “you’ve done enough” as Hunter.

The greatest strength of The Big Sick lies in the smaller moments and interactions between these characters. The flirtation between Nanjiani and Gardner is particularly convincing, a sequence of well-observed moments that seem likely to resonate with any person of a certain age who has waded into a long-term relationship almost by accident. While The Big Sick obviously draws from a significant real-life experience of its two writers, it is these little character beats that feel particularly lived in and honest.

At one point, Nanjiani shares his favourite media with Gardner. He provides a voice-over introduction to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, telling her to cover her eyes while the DVD menu plays, and keenly watching her reaction to the b-movie; it is a little cringy, but a moment with no small resonance. (“You’re testing me?” Gardner teases, a playful – and entirely fair – remark.) Even smaller exchanges, like a late-night debate over diner coffee, feel very true-to-life, at least for anybody who has ever been in a long-term relationship involving a dingy apartment, a roommate, and paper-thin walls.

This honest carries over to the rest of the film, transitioning skilfully from wry observation millennial humour into something more affecting. The Big Sick captures that sense of what it feels like to have a loved one in hospital, the sense of the powerlessness and the waiting. Leaving the hospital to visit her daughter’s apartment, Beth pauses to smell a coat hanging by the door, looking for some trace of her daughter. At one point, Nanjiani buys a giant giraffe from the gift shop, if only to stave off the feeling of powerlessness. “I don’t even know if she likes giraffes,” he confesses. “We never talked about giraffes.”

The Big Sick is a profound and sincere piece of work, a romantic comedy that invests rather earnestly in its characters and their world. It is a funny film, but a film that uses its humour to skirt around the dramatic ideas at its core. Much like the central character himself, The Big Sick suggests that its smart quips and its wry observations hide a genuinely humanist core. It is an effective and affecting accomplishment.

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