From meet cute to meet coma
If you’re a stand-up comedian in a movie, it’s only a matter of time before you’re suffering a sad, unfunny, baggage-spewing nervous breakdown on stage. I think that much of my general apathy toward the medium of live stand-up stems from an irrational fear that this happens at literally every comedy show, in the way that moviegoers were scared to take showers after seeing Psycho or enter bodies of water after watching Jaws.
In Michael Showalter’s Chicago-set The Big Sick, the comedian on the brink is Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself as a Pakistan-born man torn between worlds. Kumail’s traditional family tries to push him into an arranged marriage with any Pakistani girl they can find, but he instead dates strong-willed white therapist Emily (Zoe Kazan) on the sly, before his surplus of secrets pulls them apart as well. The entire situation becomes exponentially complicated when Emily goes into a coma, with Kumail hovering around the hospital despite an icy reception from her panicking parents.
Nanjiani and comedy writer-producer Emily V. Gordon wrote the script for The Big Sick, based on their own real-life boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-goes-into-medically-induced-coma experiences. I try to avoid too much extratextual material, so I don’t know if the onstage breakdown really happened, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is whether the film works, and the answer resounds clearly: sometimes.
There is a lot to like about The Big Sick, especially the charismatic performances of Nanjiani and Kazan, who are given sturdy support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents. Although Showalter’s direction is functional at best, there is honesty in the details, such as Kumail watching videos on his phone while his parents think he’s praying downstairs, or a photo album tour of Emily’s goth phase. The film is designed to be a laugh vs. cry crowd-pleaser, and it largely fulfills that mandate—the movie has all the markings of a breakout hit.
Still, at 119 minutes long, The Big Sick may be too much of a good thing. There are too many redundant and unnecessary scenes. I laughed a lot, but after the 10th or 12th scene of Kumail and his comedian friends ragging on each other, that two-hour running time starts to feel pretty punishing. The film painstakingly assembles a tower of conflicts for Kumail, then allows him to wipe them out in one swipe by creating the “perfect” one-man show. Honestly, I have rarely been so aggravated by such a funny and heartwarming film.
It comes as no surprise, then, that The Big Sick was produced by Judd Apatow, the high priest of shapeless and frustrating comedy, although the bigger problem is Showalter’s blandly affable direction. To paraphrase Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, comedy is like a shark—it needs to keep moving in order to survive. I think what we got on our hands is a Sick shark.