The Romantic-Comedy genre has fallen on hard times as of late. Do a quick Google search for the best Rom-Com’s of all time, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything from the last fifteen years. Which is a shame, because some truly classic movies fall into the Rom-Com category. The duo of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and one of my all time favorites: When Harry Met Sally, all great films, all undoubtably Rom-Com’s. The genre exploded in the late nineties and early two-thousands, which lead to a massive drop in quality. There have been recent twists on the genre, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up are Rom-Com’s through the “dude-bro” lens. Crazy Stupid Love was a Rom-Com in the midst of a midlife crisis, hell, you could even make a case for Deadpool. But it feels like forever since we’ve gotten a great, true to form Romantic-Comedy. Until now.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon tell a largely auto-biographical tale of how they met, and the massive hurdles they had to overcome early in their relationship. Kumail stars as himself, and he’s an absolute delight to watch. Sure, it may be easy to get into character when that character is your real world self, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of his performance. Nanjiani is thrown into a myriad of different scenarios, from the romantic, to the awkward, to the heartbreaking. In each of these scenarios, he displays a completely different side of his character, while still being recognizably the same person.
Completing the other half of the romantic duo, is Zoe Kazan as Emily (Nanjiani’s real wife and writing partner). While Nanjiani may have had and easier job becoming the films character of himself, Kazan dealt with the exact opposite. Not only did she have to become a real person, but one who was intimately involved with the production of this film. What she delivers is simply incredible. She too is able to portray a genuine range of emotions in such a real way. At no point could I ever “see” the acting, and that, in a role that requires such diversity from the actress, is a feat of greatness.
The chemistry between these two is off the charts. From the first scene they appear in together, I instantly fell in love. Their conversations feel so natural, I was convinced there were two real people falling in love on the screen in front of me. I’m not sure how much of their dialogue was written, and how much was improvised, but it’s a testament to their performances that I’m even asking the question. And it’s not just the banter that they excel at either, but every aspect of their relationship. At one point, the two have a fight that escalates to some intense exchanges, but it still felt totally real. Relationships aren’t all cracking jokes and holding hands, any committed relationship has had its fair share of knock-down, drag out fights, and when the two get into one of these spats, its heartbreakingly convincing.
The film boasts some stellar supporting performances as well. Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Nanjiani’s well intentioned, traditionalist Pakistani parents. They want the best for their son, even though they might have different idea’s about what exactly “the best” is. Adeel Akhtar plays Kumail’s older brother, Naveed. Caught somewhere between his parents and his younger brother, he wants Kumail to be happy, but he doesn’t want him to shake up the family dynamic too much either. The entirety of the Nanjiani family, along with the characters they attract, provides some wonderful comedy, but it never goes over the top. Its easy to make the family in comedies so out of touch just to get a few extra laughs, but these actors are able to provide laughs, without ever becoming caricatures.
However, the performances most people will be (Oscar) buzzing about coming out of The Big Sick are that of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, as Emily’s parents. It’s tough to portray the “parent-in-crisis” role in a convincing way, but with the combination of the script and Romano and Hunter’s performances, they delivered something truly compelling. They each have their own way of dealing with grief, and again, they never play it up just to get another laugh. They’re both going through something traumatic, and their reactions feel genuine. There’s a scene when they come to one of Nanjiani’s Stand-Up shows, and it’s a beautiful combination of hilarious and extremely emotional.
That highlights The Big Sick’s biggest strength: the way it balances its tone. Director Michael Showalter balances the comedy, romance, and drama with expert skill. It’s hard to call this a comedy, because of how dramatic is can be, but it’s equally difficult to call this a drama, because of how damn funny it is. And isn’t that real life? A mix of the comical and the dramatic? During the intensely emotional scenes, Showalter peppers in a few brief moments of levity to give the audience some relief. Conversely, the comedy is never just for comedy’s sake, there is always something deeper lying beneath the surface. This balanced tone makes The Big Sick feel so real, so incredibly believable, and Showalter deserves serious credit for that.
Showalter and the writing team are also able to deliver many different plot lines without ever losing focus. Kumail’s stand-up career, his relationships with his fellow comedians, the stressful dynamic between him and his parents, the marital issues facing Emily’s parents, all these stories are featured, and all play an important role in the story. While lesser filmmakers would either get lost in all the different through lines, or not give them enough time to justify their presence in the film, Showalter, Nanjiani, and Gordon tie each of these stories to the story of Kumail and Emily. Not only does this choice justify these stories being there, but it gives Kumail and Emily’s story that much more weight.
The Big Sick is a classic. Not just in the Rom-Com genre, but of film in general. It’s a modern take on what romance looks like in the 21st century. This isn’t an homage to the classic rom-com’s of the past, rather, an addition to their ranks. Completely sincere, without an ounce of cynicism, Nanjiani, Gordon, and Showalter have delivered one of the greatest Romantic-Comedies of all time, and the best movie of the year.
Rating: 5.0 — Masterpiece
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