Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Big Sick (2017) - Movie Review

At the time of writing this review, I am at the tail-end of a bout with gastroenteritis; yes, a month and a half in and my body is still finding new ways to keep me out of commission. As my brain is still running on half-full in-between worrying about how intact my lunch is going to stay, I hope you’ll understand if I just skip the pleasantries and get right into the movie already. Hopefully, the film I’m looking at today does a better job of making ghastly medical issues seem funny than I just did.

The plot: Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is an up-and-coming stand-up comedian based out of Chicago. After meeting, getting to know and eventually breaking up with Emily (Zoe Kazan), he later finds out that Emily in the hospital under a medically-induced coma, one that he signed the permission papers for. As he tries to come to terms with the situation, and doing his best to help Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) during this difficult time, he discovers some things about his, his family’s and even Emily’s family’s ideas on romance and finding love that might give him the clarity he needs.

After being genuinely impressed with Kumail’s knack for scene-stealing in Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates and Fist Fight, it’s damn good to see him work out this well in a leading role. Basically a hyper-realistic version of himself, Kumail pretty much embodies that sense of hidden anguish and just plain discomfort that sits at the heart of a lot of stand-up comedians, and he sells the tragedy of the situation and his jocular attempts to cope with it extremely well. Opposite him, Kazan may end up spending most of the film out of commission but her scenes with Kumail are very warm and natural, providing the film with a lot of its grounding in reality.
Romano, who remains the poster boy for disgruntled white suburbanites from New York, ends up bringing some real emotion to his performance, with his character providing the coda for the film that really hits home through his rather emphatic delivery. Holly Hunter is much the same, only not quite as memorable… save for one scene, but then again, fighting hecklers will never not be amusing to me.

When it comes to rom-coms, most audiences are able to recite their entire plot in their sleep. Hell, I haven’t exactly made it a point of ignoring those tropes that irk me when reviewing them here. So it comes as a bit of a shock when this film in particular feels so much different to pretty much any other rom-com I’ve yet sat through. In fairness, the plot is a tad reminiscent of While You Were Sleeping, but rather than bringing up rather questionable notions concerning the coupling, this tends to stick to something more tangible. From the plot downwards, the film really doesn’t flinch when it comes to depicting the reality of this kind of situation, no doubt a result of the fact that Kumail and his IRL wife Emily V. Gordon wrote the script together. On the medical side of things, it definitely channels that feeling of desperately wanting to help but not being in a position to really do much that comes with any news of a loved one ending up in hospital. Like, to the point where it can be tough to sit through in how close it cuts, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Honestly, more so than the dramatic moments where Kumail cracks under the worry for Emily’s life or Terry explains his own views on love, it’s the comedy that seriously resonates. Maybe it’s because I used to be a serious stand-up junkie growing up, but the scenes of Kumail at the comedy club end up making the best case for why this film is as based on a true story as it is. Comedy is born from personal experience, or even just a personal viewpoint, and depressing subject matter often makes for the best jokes. However, as Nick Cave showed us in harrowing detail last year, bad experiences aren’t exactly the easiest to talk about.
Because of this, Kumail’s stand-up act involving poking fun at his own culture and his first experiences in the U.S., juxtaposed with the awkward-as-fuck dinner scenes with his family, make this feel at once funny and rather downtrodden. This only intensifies when Kumail essentially breaks down on stage about everything happening around him, resulting in the kind of soul-bearing that has officially convinced me that this guy needs more leading roles. As for the comedy as a whole, it thankfully doesn’t spend too much time on ad-libbing like so many other films of late, and instead uses elements of the plot itself for laughs rather than seemingly distracting people from the plot with laughs.

I’ve heckled stand-up comedians before. Not exactly the most graceful activity, actively interrupting someone in the middle of their job, but when you reach the point that you’re bombing so bad that the venue shuts off all the stage lights and you’re still there, chances are that someone is going to speak up. I bring this up because, through the intervention of a heckler in the film proper, its stance concerning culture clashes takes on some interesting dimensions. Kumail regularly uses his own cultural background for his comedy, and judging by the demeanour of his parents and their attitude towards his love life, it’s most likely a means of coping with weird and frequently crappy situations. Him making jokes about spending his first day in the U.S. at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and assuming that that is what happens every day? I get that. Yelling at a Pakistani comedian that they should “go back to ISIS”, on the other hand? I know that comedy clubs are basically safe spaces for people to make jokes about anything and everything (I have zero issue with this, just so we’re clear), but there’s a difference between using reality as an influence for comedy and using bigotry as an excuse.
As more of Kumail’s home life gets brought to the forefront, his parents’ insistence on finding him a wife, the genuine discomfort generated by who his parents choose as prospective mates, as well as the main plot concerning Emily, we see the bedrock for his routines. Basically, the film is saying that comedy is at its best when it comes from a real place, not just edgelord pandering. As someone who has no shame in admitting to making whatever awful jokes are needed to make another person laugh (and playing more Cards Against Humanity than is likely to be healthy for me), I get the appeal of both styles. However, given the prevalence of line-a-rama and ultimately wasting time with one-liners in comedies nowadays, it’s nice to see the alternative and a damn good one at that.

All in all, this is a serious breath of fresh air, both as a romance and as a comedy. Rather than using the comedy as a means to distract from reality, Kumail uses it to filter reality and come to terms with it, resulting in a very warm and engaging sit.

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