Movie Review - The Big Sick: A Liberal Assault On Conservative Perceptions
By Ras Siddiqui
There are at least two big names in American comedy from amongst South Asians today (both Indian-Americans), Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj, who have already established themselves in mainstream entertainment. But a relative newcomer is slowly but surely adding his name to this group, Kumail Nanjiani, who originates from the other side of the border. He was born in the city of Karachi, Pakistan, and has a new movie releasing in the United States on June 23, 2017.
In this movie - The Big Sick - the script of which Kumail co-wrote with his real life wife Emily V. Gordon, he shares a journey about stand-up comedy, romance, and the lighter side of the Pakistani-American experience in post-9/11 America. But before one proceeds, we need to add a disclaimer here. This is an American movie about a comedian trying to make it in this country, a somewhat his coming of age story. That Kunail is also a Pakistani is almost secondary here, but it does add a remarkable twist to an interesting love story.
Nanjiani plays an enhanced version of himself in The Big Sick, and the film starts off with his standup routine where he is shown sharing his ethnic background as someone who grew up playing cricket, which is just a spicier version of baseball, and also praying a lot (both of which supposedly cover most of life there). His friends are also trying to make it. An important aspect of this film is the comradery amongst comedians. Kumail has three other friends who are also trying to break into the business. CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant) and Chris (Kurt Braunohler) are all Kumail’s other family in The Big Sick. They add both substance and believability to the storyline. Plus they are at times actually funny.
Kumail’s act includes talk of arranged marriage, drug use and some profanity to get laughs. There is also a rumor a possible big name in the crowd at an event who could launch comedy careers, but Kumail is not particularly impressive. And there is more. A young blonde decides to heckle him and that is Emily (Zoe Kazan). The night is young. Kumail uses his standard line about writing her name in Urdu and after shots of liquor they end up at his apartment for some casual and comic intimacy with no strings attached. Soon after, she summons a standard Uber ride and guess what? Kumail is her driver. They do not exactly hit it off and decide not to see each other again. But it appears that they are both lying.
Kumail is next shown sitting around a table at home with his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Schroff), father Azmat (Anupam Kher), brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasurywala). There is the standard South Asian Desi table talk including a joke or two as his mom tells him to go and pray, and where kulfi ice cream and cricket also feature. And then there is the stereotypical addition of his mother’s attempt to get him married to someone from his own community by having the doorbell ring and a girl just popping in to be introduced (I wonder who could that be?). These attempts at arranged marriage do generate some interesting moments, but they are not succeeding as Kumail and Emily, who keep meeting in spite of saying that they will not, are almost reluctantly getting closer.
Kumail is also working on his one-man show featuring Pakistani life but it is not exactly being appreciated. It basically sucks! He meets his brother Naveed in a restaurant and is told by him that he should listen to his mother, grow a beard and settle down. Kumail instead tells him that he is dating a white girl and that news is not exactly well received. Next, we see Emily and Kumail together again as they talk wine and her first marriage. In the process, Emily first, and then Kumail, express their true feelings for one another and that leads to talking about meeting their respective parents. And guess who chickens out? It becomes a choice between love and family and does not end well. They seriously break up.
Kumail is trying to forget and go about his merry way till he finds out that Emily is in the hospital and could use some assistance. Hence, like its title “The Big Sick” story comes into play, and a romance is rekindled by a hospital stay. Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) show up at the hospital and that in turn produces some of the most interesting scenes in this film. Kumail is first asked to leave since he is no longer needed as Beth and Terry take charge. But somehow that is not to be as they reluctantly draw closer together. There is even a frank discussion on 9/11, as a great deal of our common humanity creeps into the movie. Beth is full of surprises as ISIS also gets a mention and alcohol flows. Emily’s condition is serious, and they are all worried about her together. The proverbial ice is being broken.
The ground has been set and no further spoilers can be added from here on except to add that while this is all happening Kumail’s mother is not giving up on his getting married. But this time the comic aspect is removed, and a really articulate and serious candidate appears in Khadija (Vella Lovell). It may have been a short scene but it is well acted and one that could easily endear a viewer to the female side of the arranged marriage scene. This small part was very well done.
The Big Sick is faction (fact and fiction) blended to be entertaining. It has its comic moments but ends up delivering more. It is basically a story of love and rebellion. The movie gets very real at the end as Kumail ends up breaking many cultural rules and ethnic stereotypes. It might be well received by many viewers but the question is, will Pakistanis be amongst them?
The Big Sick is a liberal assault on the perceived (conservative) Pakistani way of life. It is erratic in parts but eventually carries its message through. Pakistani-American Dr Hassan Zee tried once something similar in his movie “Night of Henna” (2005) but that was fiction from the Pakistani female perspective. In this movie, the bottom line is that nobody (American or Pakistani) has all the answers. But that is exactly why Emily and Kumail’s story deserves a viewing.
(Movie Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars. Mature content. Viewer discretion is advised)