‘The Big Sick’ Sundance London Review: Kumail Nanjiani Spectacularly Leads a Hilarious Knockout Hit

Michael Showalter directs this star-studded romantic-comedy based on the courtship of writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon.

By Orla Smith

‘The Big Sick’ was the second greatest new film I saw at this year’s Sundance London, and comparing it to the number one – David Lowery’s mystifying ‘A Ghost Story’ – pointedly asks the question of what makes a good film; the two couldn’t be more different.

Most notably though, ‘A Ghost Story’ is all about directorial flair, whereas ‘The Big Sick’ lacks any at all. That’s not to say that Michael Showalter’s direction is bad – rather, it does exactly what it needs to do. But what the film really rides is its hilarious script, universally spectacular performances and specific truthfulness.

Because I’m not sure this film would work nearly as much if it had been fictionalised. It’s based on the turbulent courtship of its two screenwriters Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (who also leads the film, starring as himself), who are now married. It’s produced by comedy veteran Judd Apatow, and it’s just as funny as any film he’s ever made (in my opinion, funnier), but it lacks the absurdist plasticity that his humour often relies on. In its place is comedy borne from real life, mixed seamlessly with drama that’s sourced straight from there too.

Kumail, playing himself and therefore working as a struggling stand-up, splits his time between that career and his job as an Uber driver. His social circle consists of comic friends who rib and support him in equal measure (SNL’s Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham included), as well as his family, who he regularly has dinners with, to which his mother invites a seemingly endless string of prospective brides. Their headshots are left abandoned in a box in Kumail’s apartment as – behind the backs of his parents who will only accept the idea of him marrying a Pakistani girl – he starts to nurture a relationship with Emily (Zoe Kazan).

Given who wrote the film and their current relationship status, we know where the story’s headed – although, isn’t that the case with all romantic comedies, based on a true story or not? Still, that predictability is hardly ever a factor. The delight comes from watching these people bounce off of each other in ever more unexpected ways. After they’ve broken up, Emily’s hospitalised and placed into a medically induced coma. The film is less of romantic comedy between her and Kumail, and more one between him and her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

Not a single performance falls flat, and it’s a particular delight to see Holly Hunter back on our screens in full force, at one point almost literally chewing the scenery with a ferocious energy. Romano is a strange but perfect foil to her, laid back and schlubby but managing the required tones with gentle precision.

Kazan is predictably wonderful, as are every one of the supporting players, but the film is chiefly the kind of star vehicle for Kumail Nanjiani that he hasn’t yet been offered, and he makes the case that his face should be plastering movie posters everywhere for all of the foreseeable future. He’s just as funny as you knew he was and way more heart wrenching than you ever realised he could be. It’s one of the best performances of the year so far.

You’ve probably been told that ‘you’ll laugh and you’ll cry’ so many millions of times before that the phrase has lost any and all of its sticking power, but this time, I promise, it couldn’t be truer. ‘The Big Sick’ is the kind of crowd-pleasing triumph that I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving, let alone liking. The script deftly picks and chooses which rom-com clichés it’ll work and which it’ll traverse, managing to never let you doubt its authenticity and depth – even the prospective brides that are traipsed out in front of Kumail one by one are given their dues in a scene that relieves any uncomfortable anxiety that they might be treated without the humanity of the other characters.

Dealing with cultural boundaries in romantic relationships and generational boundaries in parental ones, it holds just enough heft, but mostly it’s easily one of the best times you’ll have in the theatre in 2016. Two hours might seem long for a rom-com, but by the time the film reaches its close, you’d be happy to see it keep rolling on for hours more.

Rating: 4/5

‘The Big Sick’ will be released in UK cinemas on 28th July

 

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