by Michael B. Hock
“Inspired by a true story” can mean a lot of things when you’re making a movie. It can mean that the movie you’re watching is informed by historical documents so accurate that it practically begs that your main character be portrayed by none other than Daniel Day-Lewis himself, and basically come Oscar Time a million thinkpieces will be written about why your movie shouldn’t win. Or it can meant that no one actually proved that giant robots weren’t at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but damnit, Michael Bay spent money on those giant CGI powdered wigs and they’re going in the movie. Either way, you’re getting some representation of something on the screen with an expectation that it will not only be grounded in an actual event, but in some way works on portraying very real people in very real situations, for better or for worse. So Kumail Nanjiani giving us this very real look into the story of how he met his wife took an act of bravery. And in doing so, he has created one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
In The Big Sick Kumail Nanjiani stars as… well, Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani comedian who lives in Chicago. His very traditional family wants him to have a little bit more of a “traditional” life with prayer, arranged marriage, and possibly being a lawyer or at least not a comedian. He meets a young woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and the two begin a relationship, all while Kumail finds new and hilarious ways for them to not meet each other’s families, as his would disapprove. When Emily finds out about the arranged marriages, they break up, something that becomes more complicated when she falls into a coma, and he begins to meet her family (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.)
It’s sort of like While You Were Sleeping, but with a less stalker-y vibe.
There’s one scene in particular that sums up this movie to me. Kumail, having been called to the hospital by a friend of Emily’s, has to notify her parents that she’s sick. In order to do this, he has to get access to her phone – despite the fact that they were dating a big deal was made of the fact that he hadn’t met them. As he doesn’t know the passcode, he has to use Emily’s unconscious hand to unlock it. This is a part is managed to be played with hilarity – he’s using her hand to unlock the phone – and heart as you realize that he just wants to help, an why he’s doing this. Michael Showalter, who directed this movie, manages to constantly balance this idea, the fact that things are dire, but there’s a hilarity to it that never makes things so heavy-handed it collapses into straight melodrama. Moments like this could be played for laughs, or it could be played for the sheer uncomfortableness of it all, but we never get that instance where things go all the way down either path. It makes for a better movie going experience, and creates a better movie, all while showing off the skill of the director, writer, and cast.
Nanjiani plays the version of himself well, as a likeable guy caught up in a difficult situation, which means in some cases he’s going to make some bad choices. But again, his skill as an actor as well as a writer is really demonstrated here by his ability to create a character that is recognizable, but something fresh. There’s also the fact that this is largely touted as the story of how he met his wife, which stands to reason that Emily in the movie survives (spoiler for a real life event, I guess) but the forgone conclusion of the two characters ending up together is never a given. Kazan spends much of her time doing her best coma-acting, but she is such a presence in her short time in the introduction she manages to remind you she’s part of proceedings even when she’s just laying in bed, waiting to wake up.
Another shout out has to go to Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, who have to do a lot of heavy lifting in this movie, having to balance that humor and heart that so much of the movie is based around. They obviously caring parents, but their shift from “thanks Kumail, you can leave now” to treating him as part of the family isn’t rushed, and done in such a way that’s believable. I enjoyed the fact that we got real stories with them as well, and they worked together. The chemistry with the cast is amazing.
I can’t praise this movie enough. It’s well acted, well written, well directed. It is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and probably one of my top movies of all time at this point. I just love this movie. You need to go out and see it, probably twice.