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‘The Big Sick’ a cure for the common rom-com

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For the past few years, we’ve been hearing about the demise of the romantic comedy. “The Death of the Rom-Com” has been the central thesis of loads of lengthy thinkpieces – some more navel-gaze-y than others, but all devoted to explaining the reasons behind the genre’s impending extinction.

And then a movie comes along to remind us all that there’s plenty of gas left in the romantic tank. All it takes is someone with a compelling (and funny) story to tell or a compelling (and funny) way to tell it or – ideally – both.

A movie like “The Big Sick.”

 

Produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, “The Big Sick” stars Kumail Nanjiani (TV’s “Silicon Valley”) as a lightly-fictionalized version of himself and tells the story of the early days of his relationship with Emily V. Gordon (Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the screenplay) and the multitude of obstacles they were forced to overcome in order to be together.

Nanjiani plays, well … Kumail, a Pakistan-born stand-up comedian trying to make his way up through the ranks of the Chicago scene. His family is trying desperately to arrange a marriage for him; nothing will do but for him to marry a nice Muslim Pakistani girl. But much to the chagrin of his father Azmat (Anupam Kher, TV’s “Sens8”) and especially his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff, “Misaligned”), Kumail isn’t interested in an arranged marriage. Or in being a lawyer or any of the other things that his very traditional family wants from him.

His life is upended one night at the comedy club when he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan, “The Monster”), a grad student at Northwestern who is the opposite of every one of his family’s expectations. What begins as a one-night fling soon becomes something more, despite their best efforts. But during a particularly low down in their up-and-down relationship, Emily takes ill with a mystery ailment that devastates her health.

Kumail finds himself forced into delicate interactions with Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter, “Strange Weather”) and Terry (Ray Romano, TV’s “Vinyl”) as all three find themselves dealing with the hard questions that Emily’s condition brings bubbling to the surface. In the midst of all that, he’s striving to land a potentially career-making gig while also continuing to fend off the unending wave of potential mates trotted out by his increasingly-suspicious family.

In the end, Kumail is left to decide what – and who – is most important.

“The Big Sick” takes on some pretty big themes – family dynamics, relationships across religions, the impact of illness. The risk in doing so is the possibility of being weighed down by those themes – weight that often serves as a death knell for comedy. Luckily, the talent involved both behind the camera and in front of it is able to not only explore those themes, but to incorporate them both honestly and humorously.

Especially humor, because this movie is REALLY funny.

There are some serious comedy resumes at work on this movie. Apatow’s talents are well-documented at this point; not just in terms of writing and directing, but also in the discovery and development of comedic voices. Showalter cut his comedy teeth as part of sketch legends The State before playing a key role in the creation of “Wet Hot American Summer” and its offshoots. These guys know funny.

But really, it’s Nanjiani’s show. It would be enough if he had just written the script – blending pathos and jokes without undermining one or the other is a rare and beautiful feat – but he also turns in a dynamite performance as the star. He’s undoubtedly helped by his closeness to the material, but regardless of the reason, it’s a phenomenal turn. Kazan finds a nice balance between goofy and edgy.

Hunter and Romano are excellent; she’s great like she always is, while this might be the best work of his career. And the rest of the cast is strong as well – the performances from the actors playing Kumail’s family and his friends are good across the board.

There’s no disputing that the romantic comedy has fallen off from its heyday of ubiquity. And one could argue that the rom-coms we’ve been getting in recent years are lacking in quality. Even so, that doesn’t mean that the genre is dying. It just means that filmmakers are going to have to work a little harder to make one that can put forth humor and heart in equal measure.

And if that means more movies like “The Big Sick” – movies that are funny and meaningful with smart and relevant perspectives – then I’ll take it. Quality over quantity any day – and this movie is quality.

[5 out of 5]

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