Stand-up comedy and cultural clashes make for a stand-out rom-com.
Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars At Number 42, Bend It Like Beckham, East Is East ……. For UK audiences, culture clash comedies with characters from the Indian sub-continent have become a familiar part of our TV and cinematic landscape. Not so for those in the States, which is where The Big Sick comes in. One of the big hits of Sundance at the start of the year, the film’s now fetched up at its London sister festival.
Based on the true story of the romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his now wife, Emily Gordon, it was written by the couple and also stars Kumail as himself. Born in Pakistan, he comes from a very traditional family, one that has definite ideas about finding him a wife. He just doesn’t see it that way and pursues a more independent life – Uber driver by day and stand-up by night. He meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at the comedy club and soon finds himself having to find his way through two equally treacherous minefields. One is modern dating, especially when the woman is American and his own mother keeps introducing him to eligible girl after eligible girl. The other is making his way up the ladder in stand-up, which comes with its own built-in pitfalls.
The first thing to say is that The Big Sick is very, very funny. It’s a rom-com, certainly, but one that’s fresh and perceptive, as well as romantic, and has a sparkling script. It’s not full of jokes as such, but there’s a relentless procession of one-liners and, when Kumail’s personal line between stand-up and real life becomes blurred – which is often – it’s even funnier. The culture clash theme, especially the portrayal of his Pakistani family and its many traditions, gives it a strong point of difference, and that just adds to the comedy. Other rom-com wannabes really should take a look.
The second thing to say is that it’s surprisingly – and very – touching. While the first half of the film is comedy all the way: the couple meet, keep deciding not to see each other again but never stick to it until they have a genuine falling out. At that point, the entire tone of the film changes, as Emily becomes seriously ill and is taken into intensive care. Cue the arrival of her parents (Holly Hunter and the glorious Ray Romano from Everybody Loves Raymond). They clearly have their own problems, don’t get on and definitely don’t get on with Kumail either. But, as Emily’s stay in hospital turns out to be prolonged, he gets to know them better, which is something of an uphill task as the mother is feisty – she manages to start a fight in the comedy club! – and the father can’t tell a joke to save his life. And that’s just the start …..
While The Big Sick is an out-and-out comedy, it also uses its perfectly pitched humour to address more serious issues. Cultural differences are woven into the fabric of the film, but there are other, more political ones and some of a more ethical nature. Watch what happens when, in the absence of any next-of-kin, Kumail is asked to sign the paperwork giving permission for Emily to be put into a medically induced coma. No laughing matter, that one.
It’s full of great comedy performances. Kumail’s low-key, sometimes almost flat, delivery is irresistibly funny. Ray Romano is joyously awkward, although well intentioned, as Emily’s father and Zoe Kazan’s Emily is definitely her mother’s daughter. She and Kumail are also great together – so obviously and believably right for each other that you want to give them both a shake and tell them to get on with it!
You will laugh, and you’ll laugh a lot. Especially in the first half. In the second half, you’ll still laugh, but find yourself thinking more than you expect. And, if you’ve ever fallen in love, it’ll ring a very loud bell.
The Big Sick screens at Sundance London on Saturday, 3rd and Sunday, 4th June.