Monday, June 26, 2017

"The Big Sick"


Film titles can mean a lot.  Consider Terms of Endearment, a movie about a mother and daughter learning about each other through the ups and downs of their lives.  It's not called Cancer Daughter, which is probably for the best.  Million Dollar Baby works a lot better than The Paralyzed Boxer.

But The Big Sick puts its big second-act plot twist right there in the title for all to see, which is odd indeed because the first half of the movie -- which is a  charming culture-clash rom-com that takes a little bit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and mixes it with Judd Apatow slacker heart -- does not even begin to hint at the "big sick" of the title.

For an hour, The Big Sick is about an ethnic protagonist who falls in love outside of his accepted mother-approved cultural boundaries.  The non-ethnic love interest, of course, doesn't really get the weird things the foreigner says and does, the restrictions placed on love by a well-meaning but non-America-conforming family.  There's even a big moment in which the romantic lead pleads with the family to understand that love does not always look the same across borders.

One of the ways The Big Sick twists that formula is by turning the protagonist into a male, a Pakistani who pursues a blond-haired American girl to the horror of his family.  These sweet and shiny elements of The Big Sick work well, even if they hold no surprises.  The mother is overbearing, the father understands the needs of the heart, there's a sibling who follows the rules.

One of the running gags in the film is how the family gathers for a weekly meal in their suburban Chicago home, exactly the kind that WASP-y Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore owned in Ordinary People, and just as they are getting to dessert the doorbell rings.  It's always a prospective suitor for the beleaguered son, who cannot bring himself to come out to his parents about his attraction toward non-Pakistanis.

This is tried-and-true stuff, and it works in The Big Sick because star Kumail Nanjiani is undeniably engaging.  Nanjiani based the film on his own life story, and wrote it with his wife Emily V. Gordon, who is the fair-skinned, blonde-haired American who shows up at a comedy club one day where Nanjiani is doing his act.  They meet, they have sex, they make plans never to see each other again -- and, naturally, they fall in love.  The movie might be based on real life, but it's got an unmistakably Hollywood gloss on it; Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as Emily are sweet, good-looking, clever and among the most adorable people in the world.

Nanjiani's thin voice and clever (but quite safe) sense of humor is matched by Kazan's wavering temperament.  They both seem awkward in their own skin, a sense of dislocation the filmmakers were probably going for.  But their wispiness also proves to be troublesome when the movie hits the brakes and makes a sharp but not unexpected (there's that title again!) turn toward maudlin.

Emily contracts a mysterious illness, which if it weren't finally named as a rare disorder might bear some striking resemblances to Ali McGraw Disease, in which a young, pretty girl is unfairly and melodramatically struck down in her prime.  Emily ends up in the hospital just a day or so after Kumail breaks up with her.  The juxtaposition of their angry and resentful break-up provides the contrast for the rest of the film, as Kumail comes to meet Emily's anxious, demonstrative parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

The second half of the movie becomes more about Kumail's relationship with the mother and the father.  It's good as far as drama goes, and Hunter, as always, raises the quality bar even higher.  Her presence lights up The Big Sick and provides a sense of purpose and drive that the younger actors never quite find.  If The Big Sick had focused entirely on Kumail's response to the crisis, it might have been unbearable -- the spark Nanjiani has on screen with Kazan diminishes in the film's second half, and his dramatic breakdown feels substantially less weighty on screen than perhaps it was in real life.

That doesn't mean The Big Sick isn't affecting -- it most certainly is, and has some timely and well-considered things to say (and ways to say them) about race relations and the world of white-on-brown suspicion in which we live.  The Big Sick also pulls off at least one seemingly impossible task: It offers up a joke about 9/11 that is not only painfully funny but manages not to be tasteless.  As for its its moments of mist-eyed melancholy, The Big Sick earns them fairly, even if it finds them a little harder to play and a little less satisfying than its romantic-comedy core.

Viewed June 25, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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