THE BIG SICK (Michael Showalter, 2017)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Friday, December 29, $12, 7:30
Series runs through January 12
Michael Showalter’s surprise summer hit, The Big Sick, is a heart-wrenchingly bittersweet romantic comedy loosely based on the real life of Pakistani American actor and comic Kumail Nanjiani. It would do a disservice to call the film, which was produced by Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, a mere romcom, as it is so much more, taking on religion, assimilation, responsibility, culture, and personal identity with intelligence and wit. Kumail plays an Uber driver and stand-up comedian gigging at a Chicago club with fellow comics CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant), and his doofy roommate, Chris (Kurt Braunohler). Kumail spends a lot of time at his parents’ suburban home, the heart of his family, where his mother, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) and father, Azmat (Anupam Kher), continually invite single young Pakistani women to “drop by” to meet him, determined to arrange a proper marriage for their son. However, Kumail has started sort-of seeing a blond American woman, Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), after she playfully heckles him at a gig. As their relationship gets more serious, Kumail still hasn’t told his parents or his brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), jeopardizing their future, but when Emily is struck by a sudden illness, Kumail reevaluates who he is and what he desires out of life. Emily’s illness also forces him to get to know her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who at first want nothing to do with him.
Written by Nanjiani (The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, Silicon Valley) and freelance journalist and author Emily V. Gordon ( SuperYou: Release Your Inner Superhero, The Carmichael Show), The Big Sick is as gripping as it is funny. The characters are well defined, and the plot is filled with both delightful and shocking twists and turns that will have you on the edge of your seat, tears at the ready, particularly if you don’t know what ultimately happened to Kumail and Emily in actuality. Nanjiani is adorably understated playing a version of himself, while Emmy nominee Kazan (Ruby Sparks, Olive Kitteridge) is charming and quirky as Emily; the two have an instant chemistry that makes the stop-and-go beginning of their relationship thoroughly involving. Emmy winner Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond, Men of a Certain Age) and Oscar and Emmy winner Hunter (The Piano, Saving Grace) are terrific as Emily’s parents, who have some issues of their own to resolve aside from Kumail and Emily. (As a side note, the scene where Beth gets into a fight with a heckler was inspired by a real incident in which Hunter heckled a tennis player at the US Open.) Bryant (Saturday Night Live, Danger & Eggs) and musician and stand-up comic Burnham provide solid, um, comic relief, while Shroff and Kher excel as Kumail’s parents, who insist that Kumail follow tradition, regardless of what he wants for himself. One of the best films of the year, The Big Sick is screening December 29 at 7:30 in MoMA’s annual series “The Contenders,” which consists of films the institution believes will stand the test of time; it continues through January 12 with such other 2017 works as James Mangold’s Logan, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.