The Big Sick

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick - Based on the real-life courtship: Pakistan-born comedian Kumail and grad student Emily fall in love, but they struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail must navigate the crisis with her parents and the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart.
"Each of the characters here, presumably because they are rooted in truth, is given room to breathe and shows an ability to be changed by circumstance."

Michael Showalter's sweet, if rambling comedy drama proves that truth is often not only stranger than fiction but a good deal more convoluted - and for the most part here, enjoyably so. The Big Sick is co-written by real-life comedy couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon and based upon their crazy courtship, which is a long way from the usual hackneyed depictions of romance more often served up at Sundance.

Pakistani-born Kumail (who plays himself in the film) is working as a comic in a Chicago stand-up club while making ends meet via Uber. One night, he's heckled from the crowd by Emily (Zoe Kazan) and a tentative courtship begins. Their romance is partially complicated by the fact that neither of them is particularly looking for a relationship and, unbeknown to Emily, Kumail's family are hellbent on arranging his marriage, ensuring a steady stream of potential brides just happen to 'drop by' whenever he is over for dinner.

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This means the film essentially begins in familiar culture-clash, Meet The Kumars territory but it soon takes a sharp left turn when, on the brink of splitting up, Emily suddenly becomes desperately ill, leaving Kumail forced to put her in a medically induced coma. Although this is a longish set-up, it pays dividends in that we, like Kumail, care about Emily when she becomes sick. We've had time to get to know her sunny-side up personality and its easy to see the attraction between the pair.

It's at this point that Emily's parents Beth (Holly Hunter in a blisteringly good performance) and Terry (Ray Romano, matching Hunter step-for-step) arrive, fully armed with the ins and outs of Kumail's relationship with Emily. What follows is a sort of off-kilter courtship as Kumail finds himself wooing the couple at the same time as soul-searching over his attitude to Emily and his family. Each of the characters here, presumably because they are rooted in truth, is given room to breathe and shows an ability to be changed by circumstance. Hunter, in particular, let's the frost towards Kumail melt by degrees while losing none of Beth's essential ferociousness in the process. The day-to-day elements of relationships are also well-realised, particularly in 'fight' scenes that are by turns funny and sharply observed and which are, thanks to Showalter's relaxed approach behind the camera, given enough room to develop.

Nanjiani and Gordon aren't scared of incorporating edgy jokes about what it means to be a Muslim in America alongside their cosier themes and the gamble pays off. Even when things meander, the essential truth of the characters keeps us engaged, while the general avoidance of cliche is as welcome as an unexpected punchline.

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2017
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The Big Sick packshot
A couple struggle to maintain their culture-clash relationship... and then one of them falls ill.
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