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THE BIG SICK Is the Best Romantic Comedy in Years (Sundance Review)

THE BIG SICK Is the Best Romantic Comedy in Years (Sundance Review)

It was the snowiest day at Sundance so far. Piercing wind. Bitter temperatures. The street crossing that led to the theater was a choice between trudging knee-deep through a snow bank or risking ankle-deep freezing water. Then, out of the cold, came The Big Sick.

Directed by Michael Showalter and written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the film is an ebullient flash of consistently funny, awkward, sorrowful, and honest moments that put celebrity-stuffed modern rom-coms to shame.

Nanjiani stars as a slightly fictional version of himself–the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants who’s trying to make it as a stand-up comedian (when he should want to be a doctor), who has cold feet about arranged marriages (despite a parade of women his mom invites to “drop in” at dinner), and who keeps a lot of his life secret from a traditional family. He meets Emily (Zoe Kazan doing her best work in a field of great work) when she heckles him at one of his shows, and they do the dance of pretending to value singledom over the connective spark banging at the door to their brains.

There are two keys to why this movie works so well. The first is that Nanjiani and Kazan are magical in these roles, like a modern Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert spun together with producer Judd Apatow’s standard bent toward the melancholy mess of human lives. Unlike other male leads in similar movies, Nanjiani isn’t a snarky asshole. His humor is self-deprecating, regularly mining awkward moments for their communal absurdity instead of dominating an improv-fest (the movie uses a searing Bo Burnham for that), so his bright-eyed charm shines through.

Kazan owns her role (based on co-writer/Indoor Kids co-host Gordon), crafting a sharp, caring, sentimental woman who’s like a big middle finger to every male-fantasy, cool girl to ever appear in the genre. In short, she does what she’s always done, but her maturity shines through here.

Kumail’s family is also embarrassing-dinner-conversation perfection. His father (Anupam Kher) is everyone’s father–convinced of his own hipness, cracking observations that make sense only to him, and acting as a well-meaning liaison between the gulf of Kumail’s Western dreams and Pakistani tradition. Every single actor, down to the smallest of roles, is excellent.

The second secret to The Big Sick’s success is that all the riffing and one-liners you’d expect from Apatow land don’t merely exist to get easy laughs; they drive the narrative. Showalter’s veteran understanding of both comedy and story, as well as his affinity for crisp filmmaking, rein in Apatow’s looser, indulgent style to great effect. The best of Apatow-branded style without the baggage.

It’s a combination of their styles that makes the film’s tricky plot shift possible. Avoiding formula completely, The Big Sick is really three relationship stories in one: Kumail and his parents, Kumail and Emily, and Kumail and Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Everything shifts once her parents enter the picture, deepening the tension and raising the stakes literally to life and death. The “Big Sick” of the title is an illness that sends Emily to the hospital and redraws all the lines.

Romano deserves a ton of credit for his character, but Hunter is the movie’s spirit animal. There’s something amazing about a salty person turning sweet, and Hunter embodies a protective, scared parent who’s level-headed about life’s flaws. She’s also game to body check a racist dude-bro heckler and use improvisation for sincere, gut-punch emotional effect.

The middle section of the movie drags a bit, but there’s no easy, obvious place to cut. So much of it feels necessary, even though the momentum sags, that it may simply be a matter of accepting the movie’s pacing breather for what it has to be.

That’s especially true because of how much The Big Sick achieves in a standard runtime–considerable ups and downs between a web of different characters (and Kumail’s fledgling career hopes)–without ever feeling flat or soap operatic. It’s real-world comfortable, comforting, and hilarious as hell. Jokes kept our Sundance audience from hearing follow-up lines multiple times, including one punchline that drowned out a full minute of on-screen conversation.

The Big Sick is the complete package. An ecstatic romantic vision, unafraid of dangerous comedy, that earns all the laughs and misty eyes it goes for. Modern romantic comedies now have a standard to live up to.

4.5 out of 5 aloo gosht burritos

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Images: FilmNation

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