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Front Page - Friday, September 1, 2017

Critic's Corner: ‘Big Sick’ is good for what ails you

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a boy and a girl meet and fall for each other faster than you can say “Nicholas Sparks!” But their relationship is forbidden because she’s white, he’s Muslim and his parents insist he marry the woman of their choosing. Then, out of the blue, the girl becomes deathly ill and the boy must choose between family and love.

The plot of “The Big Sick” sounds like a hodgepodge of every clichéd romantic comedy ever made. But the film uses these familiar and melodramatic elements in service of one of the sweetest, funniest and most original love stories I’ve seen.

Oh, and before you roll your eyes at the whole “boy meets girl, boy’s parents disapprove, girl gets sick” nonsense, it all really happened. That’s right: “The Big Sick” is based on a true story.

Pakistani-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays himself – a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago who gets heckled one night by a pretty girl and decides to pursue her. “The Big Sick” was co-written by Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the pretty heckler. The film is about their relationship.

Maybe that’s why nearly everything in the film feels human and real. When Nanjiani and Emily meet and begin dating, there’s a loose, laidback, almost improvisational quality to the way they talk and interact. It’s as if the camera captured not a pair of performances but two people awkwardly getting to know each other and falling in love.

In comparison, the early scenes in which Nanjiani eats dinner with his family seem more like a conventional comedy. They have a calculated and over-the-top sensibility that’s absent from the rest of the movie.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining. On the contrary, unlike Nanjiani, I started looking forward to the ring of the doorbell in the middle of each meal and the arrival of another potential wife for our protagonist.

The girl who tried too hard to shoehorn Nanjiani’s love of “The X-Files” into her conversation with him was my favorite. If I were pick a partner for Nanjiani, it would be her. She made me laugh.

Then again, I laughed a lot while watching “The Big Sick.” It’s been a long time since I’ve done that while seeing a movie. It seems like most comedies today lean on vulgarity and outrageous behavior, and most of the time, that stuff isn’t funny to me.

But the humor in “The Big Sick” is like the love that develops between Nanjiani and Emily: it rises out of the authenticity of the moment.

For example: In one of my favorite scenes, Emily’s dad, Terry, sleeps over at Nanjiani’s place while his daughter is in the hospital. The two didn’t get off on the best foot and are still getting to know each other when, after lights out, Terry confesses to having cheated on his wife.

I laughed out loud at Nanjiani’s horror as Terry described his regret over the one night stand the moment his orgasm was over. I think only Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) could pull a big laugh out of a deadpan moment like that.

I also liked this exchange from later in the same conversation:

Terry: “Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love.”

Nanjiani: “I don’t really get that.”

Terry: “I know. I thought I could just start talking and something smart would come out.”

I could film this column with moments like these that pulled laugh after laugh out of me. But then you might get the wrong idea and think “The Big Sick” is a yuk-fest when, really, it’s more than that.

After Emily is hospitalized and placed in a medically induced coma, the film transforms into a moving, poignantly rendered drama in which Nanjiani comes to terms with himself and the people around him.

It’s during this portion of the movie – when it exchanges laughs for a heartbreaking reality – that “The Big Sick” reveals itself to be a small cinematic miracle. It’s not a romantic comedy or a medical drama but a tearful and hopeful glimpse into the human condition.

Nanjiani isn’t a bad person, but he does lie to everyone around him. He does this in part to protect himself but he also does it to avoid disappointing others. His transformation into an honest person who tells the truth, even when it will hurt him or someone else, is deeply satisfying to watch.

A word about the performances before I close:

If I were to judge “The Big Sick” solely on Nanjiani’s performance, it wouldn’t score well. For most of the film, he’s too low-key for my tastes. I liked him, but I think director Michael Showalter could have pulled a more energetic performance out of him.

Thankfully, Zoe Kazan, who plays Emily, makes up the difference. Not only is Kazan full of life and truth, she’s a truly luminous presence in each frame of the film in which she appears. (That’s my way of avoiding the cliché of writing, “She lights up the screen whenever she appears.”)

Romano and Holly Hunter also deliver tonally perfect performances as Emily’s parents. It’s as if the camera captured not a pair of performances but two people trying to find their way through a heart-rending situation and back to each other.

You might have seen this story before, but not like this. “The Big Sick” skillfully weaves two normally incompatible dichotomies – levity and drama – into a single, beautiful tapestry. I left the theater uplifted – smiling as I thought back on the humor but also reflective. I hope you seek it out.