Director Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick," based on Pakistani-born comedian/actor Kumail Nanjiani's real-life story, is often hilarious proof that in jest there is truth. While gleefully verifying that in dedicated hands the classical romantic comedy remains a viable entertainment, this convivial foray into whether or not love conquers all also asserts a humanistic message that is of late egregiously absent from our national consciousness. Nanjiani's tale sagely solicits art to fill this vacuum.
On the surface it plays rather simply. Kumail, who Ubers for a living when he's not trying to "kill" the audience at a Chicago comedy club, one night attracts the eye of Zoe Kazan's Emily Gordon, a blonde, blue-eyed young lady who's studying to be a psychologist when she's not experiencing love at first sight.
It's all well and good for starters ... ain't love grand? etc., etc. But the getting-to-know-you portions of this budding affaire de coeur, at first rollickingly humorous as Emily and Kumail embrace their cultural differences, eventually runs into reality.
Emily, ostensibly unhampered by prejudices and familial circumscriptions when struck by Cupid's arrow, has told her parents, Beth, played by Holly Hunter, and Terry, portrayed by Ray Romano, all about her new beau. But Kumail, though he hasn't become the doctor or lawyer his Muslim-practicing parents expect him to, at least not yet, has had no intention of sharing this latest chapter in his life with them. Alas, this leads to relationship fight No. 1, and suddenly there's trouble in paradise.
Surely, you think, it will never be right again. But remember, this is love.
In short, if you are a participant in the mysterious voodoo that poets contend makes the world go 'round, you know that if there are rules to this blood sport, they remain elusive, mercurial and seemingly without reason. Hey, you know, all's fair in love and war. Nonetheless, almost everyone wants to play, whether they know it or not. Offering full employment to songwriters, psychiatrists, writers and the clergy, it outsells NASCAR, the NHL and MLB combined. Thus it becomes our romantic hope that in Emily and Kumail's case, ethnic disparity has met its match.
However, just when you think that these lovebirds of different feather will go through the usual on-again, off-again thrust and parry of emotions common to traditional renditions of the genre, a deus ex machina-like element plops a sobering variation into the works. Granted, the sudden shadow cast upon the heretofore lighthearted scenario would be rightfully derided as strictly soap opera were it not that the convincingly dramatized adversity is true. What occurs is part and parcel of that universal maxim that sometimes stuff just happens.
But while the temper of the film changes, the wit and wisdom that threads through the fiber of the screenplay never loses sight of the plot's enlightened essence. Rather, the humor trucks on to find insightful whimsy in mishap, courtesy of Nanjiani's devotion to the precepts of tolerance and the amusing embodiment of said idealism by the capable cast. Lest we descendants of immigrants forget, his example enthusiastically personifies the hopeful, unjaded newcomer whose noble task it is to remind us what the lady in the harbor is meant to represent.
On the meat and potatoes level of the story, Kumail's agonies and joys give us an educating look into his Pakistani family's American experience. Observing the outsider-becoming-insider serves as a microcosmic addendum to the vantage point first flourished by Alexis de Tocqueville in his "Democracy in America" (1835 & 1840). As such, we garner new perception regarding the conveyor belt of freedom ... this process of ours that turns huddled masses into mass consumers, taxpayers, hot dog eaters and maybe if they're lucky, Yankee fans.
While this continuous march of new and changing faces has always distressed that segment of our society afraid of losing its achieved perch in The New World, those who understand the humanitarian nature of this dynamic exult in the progress of the democratic experiment. And thus it only follows that as human lives waft about in the winds of history, each wave of neophyte doubtless has its example of the Romeo and Juliet story…love trying to find its way through the narrow crevices of age-old conventions, prejudices and fears.
Nanjiani, flexing his comedic worth, manages the difficult task of respecting tradition while simultaneously turning on its ear through loving humor those precepts that simply aren't going to work for him on these liberated shores. His interaction with Emily's parents through the movie's crisis célèbre, especially in some touching scenes where Ray Romano winningly revivifies his comic chops, celebrates the universal notions of decency that belie the labels greedy autocrats assign to diminish its citizenry.
While offering no magic cure for the big social ills it intelligently satirizes, for those filmgoers suffering from acute entertainment deficiency, "The Big Sick" does offer proof positive that laughter is the best medicine.
"The Big Sick," rated R, is a Lionsgate release directed by Michael Showalter and stars Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Ray Romano. Running time: 120 minutes
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