The Big Sick (2017, Michael Showalter)

The Big Sick is the true story of lead and co-writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, also co-writer Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani plays himself in Sick because it’s a star vehicle explicitly for him. Gordon doesn’t appear. Zoe Kazan plays her. Gordon co-writing the film adds a couple of extra layers to the film; the most obvious is how much of a Nanjiani vehicle it’s supposed to be, and the second is how it portrays the couples’ parents.

While the actual events of Sick took place in 2007, the film came out ten years later with the latest in laptop and mobile phone technologies. The visual voicemail scene isn’t true! But it also makes the anti-Brown person racism Nanjiani experiences different than it would’ve been ten years earlier. The always hilarious (not kidding, every one is a winner) 9/11 gags would play so much differently earlier. Big Sick did not forecast the future very well with white male bigots either.

Anyway.

The film starts with Nanjiani as a burgeoning stand-up comic. The film’s never clear who’s supposed to be the funniest on stage, making it a little like a Godzilla movie where there’s no rhyme or reason to why the supporting kaiju can beat up the other supporting kaiju. He’s not supposed to be the funniest, but he’s definitely the funniest. And then some of the people who are supposed to be funny aren’t?

He regularly goes to dinner at his parents’ house, and they’re devout Pakistani Muslims. Well, devout, but there’s swearing. Anupam Kher plays the dad, Zenobia Shroff plays the mom. Shroff’s an overbearing Muslim mom who’s just trying to get Nanjiani to go to law school and marry a Pakistani girl. She brings them over to dinner to audition; Nanjiani keeps all their headshots in a cigar box. Kher’s bit is he thinks he’s cooler than his sons.

They’re not going to ever get anything. Kher at least doesn’t get a cold diss; Shroff gets a cold diss.

However, as the white parents, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano get best supporting bait. Hunter’s fantastic, especially as she and Nanjiani bond. Romano’s excellent, too; it’s simultaneously more impressive than Hunter (because of course she can do this part) while not technically being better. Good thing they wouldn’t be competing for the same nomination.

So, one night in the club, Kazan heckles Nanjiani, and when he sees her at the bar later, he picks her up. She’s a manic pixie dream girl who goes to the University of Chicago for a therapy master’s; she can keep up with Nanjiani’s constant comedian barbs, just like his pals (even better than his doofus roommate, Kurt Braunohler, who’s never as funny as the film thinks). After what she intended to be a one-night stand, they start dating.

Only Nanjiani doesn’t tell his family about her and doesn’t tell her about his family. He definitely doesn’t tell Kazan how mom Shroff wouldn’t stand for him dating a white girl and how he’s actively in the arranged marriage market.

Once Kazan finds out, she ends the relationship, leading to Nanjiani using what he’s learned picking her up to use on other comedy club patrons. Meanwhile, Kazan gets a mystery illness, and eventually, Nanjiani comes up on the phone list for potential support staff. When he gets to the hospital, Kazan crashes, and Nanjiani has to falsify a medical release to allow her intubation. It saves her life, so I guess there are no repercussions.

He calls Hunter and Romano to come into town from North Carolina (they’re apparently North Carolina liberals). After realizing they know how the relationship ended, Nanjiani eventually bonds with Hunter and Romano through a shared intense experience. Lots of great scenes for the three of them, easily the best written in the film.

Does Gordon wake up? Does Nanjiani’s “House M.D.” impression save the day? Oddly, it might, but the film entirely glosses over it.

The third act’s a mess, with Nanjiani making big life decisions and everything related to them playing out off-screen. The film’s got a problem with presenting time passing (odd, since Nanjiani has strict time-based dating rules to juggle white girls and disapproving family), and there’s not anywhere near enough character development on the supporting cast. Given the film’s got two extremely well-paced acts, first with Nanjiani and Kazan, second with Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano, it’s even more disappointing when the third fumbles.

There’s a nothing subplot about Nanjiani’s one-person show about growing up Pakistani, which ought to be important but isn’t. Though, given Kazan’s not important either, nor are Shroff and Kher, so it going nowhere is par for the course.

Then the end credits post-script reveal the real story—for Kazan (and Gordon), anyway—came after the movie’s events. And then, when you see the actual timeline, it’s even worse.

As a vehicle for Nanjiani, The Big Sick’s perfect. Ditto as Oscar bait for Holly Hunter and Roy Romano. But it’s just a disaffected male redemption movie.

And Showalter’s direction is exceptionally pedestrian. The film’s technically competent and all, but it’s a good thing it’s got a well-written, talky script; otherwise, there’d be nothing doing.

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