The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Big Sick

The Big Sick is one of the best romantic comedies of our time. That phrase, “romantic comedy,” generally brings to mind something fluffy and manipulative. Every so often, though, one comes along that genuinely has something enlightening to say about romance: When Harry Met Sally, Jerry Maguire, (500) Days of Summer, etc. This one fits squarely alongside them. It's a work of 100% sincerity, and based on a true story to boot.

Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) co-wrote the movie with his wife Emily V. Gordon. He also stars as a pre-fame version of himself. Kumail is a struggling stand-up comedian who meets and forms an intense connection with grad student Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). They don't intend to fall in love. She's not looking for anything serious, and his traditional Muslim parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are trying to push him into an arranged marriage. The latter issue drives a wedge between them, although it's clear the affection is still there.

Then Emily experiences a significant health crisis and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail finds himself getting to know her disapproving parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), as they spend days at the hospital, waiting for the doctors to figure out what's wrong.

Directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris), The Big Sick does a couple of things simultaneously, and it does them both well. The idea of meddling parents trying to fix up their adult children is often played for cheap laughs onscreen. Here, it's depicted with far more reality. Kumail's parents are extremely bound to the cultural/religious traditions that have served them well. He's not totally feeling those traditions. The pressure they put on him actually has the effect of making him even less receptive. Kumail doesn't want a relationship based purely on sensibility, he wants one that's exciting, that makes him feel alive. The story poignantly, but humorously looks at how he tries to find a way to explain this to his parents without getting shunned by them.

The other thing the film does well is to show how intense true love can be. Even after Beth tells Kumail that his presence at the hospital isn't needed anymore – and even though he and Emily are no longer officially together -- he can't bring himself to leave. Emily has impacted him in such a strong way that it's literally life-changing. He doesn't anticipate his own reaction; he just knows that he's got to stay by her side. Nanjiani and Kazan create magnificent chemistry together in the early scenes, which is why the love story works as powerfully as it does. (We know she loves him back, even though she's unconscious.) The performances make us understand how the characters click in a deep way. Both actors do outstanding work.

While The Big Sick deals with illness and comas, it's about as far from depressing as you can get. There's great humor in the relationship, in the behind-the-scenes look at stand-up comedy, in Kumail's attempts to bond with Emily's parents, and also in the depiction of how people deal with stress in difficult times. One of the funniest scenes finds Beth and Terry coming to see Kumail's routine in order to get their minds off things. Although Beth doesn't entirely like Kumail, an audience member heckling him is enough to kick in her mama-bear instincts. Hunter hilariously nails the scene in a way that's as affecting as it is funny. The whole movie plays in that manner that makes you laugh and nod in recognition at the same time.

There's an old saying among writers: “Write what you know.” Nanjiani and Gordon have done just that. They've told their own story with grace and warmth. Consequently, The Big Sick feels fundamentally real, as opposed to feeling contrived, as many entries in the romantic comedy genre do. It's no spoiler to say there's a happy ending here. That happiness is earned through an honest examination of how true love rises above life's challenges. This is a very special film.

( out of four)

The Big Sick is rated R for language including some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours.

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