It can be easy to discount a genre film for staying in its lane. After so many years of slasher films and superhero movies and zombie invasions, it’s understandable to become complacent or jaded as more and more of them flood an increasingly busy film market. We’ve seen it all before. Nothing’s going to change, no chances to be taken, it’s the same story as the last with different actors. We want to see something different. We want to see the zombies run instead of shamble. We want the slasher movie to withhold its catharsis. We want excitement and deconstruction, to be surprised. And eventually, that begins to happen. Maybe on the fringes at first, through independent movies with low budgets and low risk without studio backing, slowly beginning to catch on with the mainstream. Eventually, these risky nonstandard genre films become the new normal.
The Big Sick, the third film directed by The State and Stella alum Michael Showalter, isn’t interested in shaking things up. It is the Platonic Ideal of a standard meet cute romantic comedy. Written by real life married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, it is quite simply the story of how they met. Kumail (Nanjiani playing himself) is a stand-up comedian toiling away in Chicago as his traditionalist family tries to set him up with a series of arranged marriages. Emily (Zoe Kazan) is a PhD student looking to become a therapist who genially heckles Kumail at a show one night, leading to a torrid romance. Kumail’s family would never accept a non-Muslim wife, forcing him to choose between his family and his heart when Emily falls to a mystery illness that lands her in a medically induced coma. Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) come to town to watch over their daughter, causing Kumail’s life to complicate even more.
The Big Sick is the sort of film that, if you really wanted to, you could probably map out the major plot turns without seeing more than the first five minutes. It doesn’t go in any surprising directions or try to subvert the genre in any way. It has its share of contrivances, though it feels more genuine than some of the more absurdly structured romantic comedies of times past. IT helps that this film about a stand-up comedian is filled with real stand-ups (the likes of Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler represent Kumail’s inner circle); it’s easy for canned film stand-up to feel just like that - canned, and The Big Sick succeeds by making it seem like they just brought cameras to real shows. The relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents feels equally realistic; though tangled up in quite a few romantic comedy contrivances, Hunter and Romano deserve quite a bit of credit for giving these characters multiple dimensions. The script gives them plenty to dig into, and they are more than game.
Of course, a romantic comedy is only as good as its leads. Kazan is no stranger to the form, having previously appeared as the object of affection in the likes of What If? and Ruby Sparks. She outwardly fits the manic pixie dream girl mold, but The Big Sick gives her plenty of definition to make her a real character. She remains an engaging presence on screen. This is Nanjiani’s biggest role to date. He’s become a name thanks to Silicon Valley and a host of guest spots in all sorts of films, but this is a big step out into the spotlight for him. Supporting actors making the move into a lead isn’t always a sure bet, but Nanjiani is perfectly comfortable here (playing an exaggerated version of himself couldn’t have hurt that transition). He’s proven himself a sardonic wit in his other roles, and that remains the case here. They make for an undeniably charming couple, the sort you want to root for as as the relationship hits its inevitable rocky stage in act two.
Showalter as a director is thoroughly competent, unsurprising after making The Baxter and Hello, My Name is Doris. Those films are acting showcases, and Showalter isn’t at all interested in reinventing the visual wheel, sticking with standard dialogue coverage and two shots conventionally edited. His strength lies in cultivating performance and believable tone, which is all a film like The Big Sick needs to succeed. There are a few distracting Apatow-style improv runs (Apatow produced the film) that aren’t quite bad, but feel out of place in a genre that’s generally left such flourishes behind. It helps a bit that these actors are real comedians, but it still seems artificial. These moments are few and far between, making the quibble a minor one in the grand scheme of things. And it certainly doesn’t detract from a film as entertaining and engrossing as The Big Sick usually is. It’s formula, but it’s nearly perfect formula, which can still count for quite a bit these days.