To give you the gist of it, The Big Sick is the story of Kumail and Emily and their pursuit of love and happiness in the face of the cultural discrepancies that stand in their way. Kumail’s parents want to arrange a Muslim marriage for him, in keeping with Pakistani tradition, while he himself isn’t even religious, but keeps up appearances because he fears being exiled from his family. Then stuff happens. I usually don’t keep these reviews spoiler-free, but in this case explaining the plot would mean taking away from the viewing experience, so I won’t.
The Big Sick had a budget of just 5 million dollars and was written by Nanjiani with the help of his wife, the real Emily Gordon. It premiered at Sundance and received universal critical acclaim, which led to the film being picked up by Amazon Studios, which significantly helped the distribution and subsequent commercial success of the movie. The Big Sick made 49 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing indie of 2017 (so far).
What sets it apart from the rest of the schlock that the rom-com/rom-dram genre has to offer is its ability to juggle its themes in a way that seems completely effortless and natural. It switches tones with such ease that the viewer doesn’t even truly notice the transition between comedy and drama, the movie flows like real life does – one second you’re talking to your girlfriend about something as inane as the weird American pronunciation of the name Craig, and before you know it she’s found your box-full of headshots of attractive Pakistani women, ready and waiting for a lucrative arranged marriage. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous when you write it out, but the chemistry between the two leads, Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani, makes their on-screen relationship as believable and realistic as romances get. It’s truly amazing to see how much can be achieved with just a strong cast and a well-written script. Even Ray Romano gets some actual acting done instead of phoning it in with his usual Everybody Loves Raymond shtick.
The dialogue is very snappy and quick-witted. Sure, there are some jokes that feel somewhat forced, like most of the stuff that Bo Burnham’s character says (half of his jokes sounded like they came from TJ Miller in the remarkably dull Deadpool), but the majority of the script is polished and genuinely funny. Nanjiani really does carry the latter half of the movie, displaying his ability to portray a much wider array of emotions than expected as he goes from sadness to rage and desperation.
So what does The Big Sick tell us about its genre and how to execute it properly? As mentioned above, a movie like this absolutely needs good characters. Any romantic comedy or drama is dead in the water if its writer isn’t competent or imaginative enough to create a pair of interesting and likable characters that the audience can connect with emotionally. We can’t root for a plastic cut-out or a walking cliche, and I say that with the conviction of someone who is above fed-up with manic depressive dream boys and girls and their tales of pseudo-depression and Facebook-tier philosophizing. A great example of horrible characterization can be found in this year’s In Search of Fellini. The protagonist is a sheltered girl that has never had any friends or, as far as I could tell, even gone to school. Her mother raised her at home, watching black and white movies with optimistic and hopeful messages, creating a false image of life and human interaction in her daughter’s head. The whole movie hinges on this ridiculous, nonsensical premise. It gets worse though, as this girl goes to Italy in the hopes of meeting the great Italian director Federico Fellini. She has very limited funds and no skills, social or otherwise. It’s all the story of her dreamy mental illness, which never even gets mentioned or noticed because apparently it’s not unusual for someone to spend their days watching romantic movies and fantasizing about having a relationship while simultaneously being completely unable to function as a human being, and how it led her to living the life that she was meant to be living. It’s cheap, it’s boring, and it’s offensive to anyone who has ever suffered from an actual mental illness. Compare this to The Big Sick where the characters behave like actual human beings instead of personified Tumblr posts. They’re not defined by any one thing, they don’t fall into some predetermined category that provides a template for their actions and opinions. Kumail and Emily react to the world they’re in, to the situations that they’re faced with.
Dialogue is the second important point. No, it doesn’t need to be on par with the works of Paddy Chayefsky or Aaron Sorkin, but it needs to have rhythm. Take a look at The Coen Brothers’s films for an example of what rhythm in dialogue looks like, even in their weaker films that lack an impressive script. The cutting of the scene, the pauses, the very ebb and flow of conversation matters just as much as what is being said. A lot of the dialogue in movies in general these days sounds sterile and restrained, as if the characters simply need get something out of the way before continuing on to the next set-piece. The most memorable scripts, for me, are the ones that accurately portray human interaction, like in Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation, Network (despite its over-the-top satire), The Social Network, The Big Lebowski. All of these movies, even when they those that on occasion plunge into absurdity, share one thing in common – their ability to entertain you for hours on end with just the acting and dialogue. That’s why the script is so important in a rom-com, and in character-driven movies in general. They can’t fall back on the visual or technical aspect of film making because that would go against their stated purpose (not that they can’t be visually appealing, mind you, I’m simply arguing that their focus inherently lies elsewhere). The Big Sick hits the sweet spot. Its writing is impressive in that it meshes comedy with character development. It both furthers the plot in a non-intrusive way and entertains the viewer. I expect this movie to be near the very top of my Best of 2017 list.