The Big Sick

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At CinemaCon this year, my wife and I were at a lunch when Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and his wife Emily Gordon, came out to talk about the movie they co-wrote together. It’s the true story about their courtship and her horrific sickness (spoiler alert: she lived). When it came time to show clips of their movie The Big Sick, she instead had a scene he did from Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Kumail has a scene as a new-agey masseuse, who ends up giving the bride a massage completely nude, using his oiled up butt all over her back. It’s easily the funniest scene in that movie, and it played well with the CinemaCon crowd, too.

After this lunch, I ran into Nanjiani in the hallway, and asked him why his wife wasn’t in the movie (since he’s playing himself). He smiled and said, “She’s not an actress.”

Well, at least they got a good choice to play Emily — Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, HappyThankYouMorePlease, Revolutionary Road, What If).

Unlike the mainstream rom-com’s, this is a lot hipper. Unlike the indie films, this has more depth (and it broke records when, as an indie, it sold for $12 million to Amazon after its Sundance showing).

The film deals with a struggling comedian, and can be formulaic at times. But I found it all so heartwarming. I cried during the sad scenes. I had tears of joy in other scenes. I was surprised when walking out that I liked it more than my wife. She thought it was good, but was expecting it to be funnier. Yes, the trailers do show the funniest scenes, but I don’t mind going for a comedy and being blown away by the drama.

Kumail is a stand-up comedian in Chicago who is trying to make a living in a tough field, as well as negotiating the pressures of his Pakistani family. That means talk about when he’ll finish law school. It also means the mom will invite eligible young Pakistani women to dinner. Now, in so many movies the montage of all the crazy people the parents are setting their kid up with doesn’t work (My Big Fat Greek Wedding comes to mind). In this, it worked wonderfully. That’s because they weren’t all done at once. And, they were all different, not just a bunch of nutjobs. One woman tries to impress him with her knowledge of the X-Files (his favorite show). It’s hysterical. A few times, the women were pretty, but relatively quiet. That normally wouldn’t be a problem, but this is a guy that we’ve seen have witty banter with his fellow comedians at the club. One time, he’s even set up with a pretty, and surprisingly hip woman.

Yet he falls for a white woman he met at the club, who he thinks heckled him during his set. They get into the dynamics of making a commotion of any kind when somebody is on stage, and that quickly leads to a romance.

Even though Emily insists she doesn’t want a “relationship” they clearly are having one, when she comes across his cigar box of photos from the various women mom has set him up with. That leads to a break-up. It also makes a phone call he gets a lot more difficult — Emily is in the hospital. As things worsen, her parents show up (played wonderfully by Oscar-winning Holly Hunter and former stand-up Ray Romano)

They’re not thrilled to see him. The mom knows he broke her heart. The father, well…he’s a bit indifferent. And in the awkwardness of the situation, asks meekly, “So…your opinions on 9/11.”

Director Michael Showalter didn’t impress me with his last movie (Hello, My Name is Doris). I didn’t see his film Wet Hot American Summer, but that didn’t get the best reviews. With this movie, he does a terrific job taking us through an emotional rollercoaster and surprising amount of depth. You’re rooting for this relationship to work the entire time, because they seem perfect together.

I was pleasantly surprised that this movie showed a lot about the world of stand-up comedy. I have a soft spot for that and it’s always fun when it’s done accurately (most recently by Mike Birbiglia).

On a weekend where everyone is going to go see the disappointing Baby Driver, it would be nice if at least some people will go see this movie — which is way better in every way.

4 stars out of 5.

— Josh Board