SXSW Film: Michael Showalter’s ‘The Big Sick’ is a wonderful mix of tailored writing, performance, and naturalist directing

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani appear in The Big Sick by Michael Showalter, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nicole Rivelli.

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Sundance buzz can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes you luck out and have a real bit hit on your hands (Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite) and other times you have a miserable mess that everybody can’t wait to forget about (Hamlet 2, Birth of a Nation). In any case, festivals like South By Southwest act as a Thunderdome for what might work in the wake of that initial festival buzz, and also offer a chance for critics who can’t afford a $500-a-night Airbnb rental to either hop on the clown car or laugh as it crashes.

Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick is such a film, as it can be safe referred to as a “festival darling” and received rapturous praise (and a shitload of Amazon Studios’ cash) after its premiere. I really didn’t know what to expect walking into it, aside from that it had that Sundance chip on its shoulder, was directed by one of the best people involved in The State, and starred Kumail Nanjiani, a really great comedian.

Folks, I’m here to tell you that the install reaction was absolutely the right one. The Big Sick is one of the best movies of the year so far, and might only be bested by Baby Driver for my favorite film of SXSW.

The Big Sick dramatizes a year or two in the life of husband-and-wife screenwriting pair Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. After meeting one night during a comedy show, Kumail (Nanjiani, playing himself), an Uber driver with dreams of becoming a successful stand-up comic, and Emily (Zoe Kazan), a psychology graduate student, start dating, even though each of them professes that they’re not looking for a real relationship. Both are hiding things from the other: Kumail’s traditional family (Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, and the fantastic Zenobia Shroff) wants him to marry a Pakistani girl (and constantly invite girls over for dinner for him to meet, each with their own glamor shot ready), and Emily is fresh off her first marriage. That leads them to a big ol’ fight once her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Ramano) come to town and Kumail tries to duck meeting them, and for all intents and purposes, they’re done with each other. But when Emily comes down with a potentially fatal unknown illness and has to be put in a medically-induced coma to stabilize her, Kumail’s forced to evaluate what he wants in life, and find out whether or not he has the courage to be his own man despite his parents’ expectations.

Normally, I’d find the notion of actors playing themselves in a slightly fictionalized biopic to be terribly self-indulgent, but Nanjiani and Showalter pull it off. This’ll sound silly and facile, but it’s true: There’s simply no one else that could play Kumail as well as he could. The dialogue simply would not work as well coming from another person, and a great deal of this movie relies on his stand-up, the energy and delivery of which is nearly impossible to replicate in another actor. And he gives a hell of a performance outside of the comedy aspect as well, perhaps because there’s no research quite like living through an experience like this. There’s little of the self-aggrandizement would go into a film by lesser writers here, and it’s super critical of him and his actions throughout the film, from his keeping of all of the headshots given to him by prospective Pakistani brides, to the frank cruelty of his comments towards Emily at points in this film’s one big fight, to his lengthy lying to his parents and Emily and ultimately himself. It’s a wonderful mixture of tailored writing, performance, and naturalist directing, and I really would not be shocked if he receives awards consideration later in the year.

The film wouldn’t work as well without that exceptional core performance, but the rest of the great cast ensures that the film lands as wonderfully as it does. I have never liked Zoe Kazan in anything I’ve see her in prior to this, and she kills it as Emily. She nails the early moments between her and Nanjiani, and establishes a character for us to care deeply about once she falls under the weather. Sadly, she isn’t given more to do, as she spends much of the runtime in a medically induced coma, but her performance provides a lovely bookend to the film and enhances the hell out of Kumail’s arc over its course (and subverts cliche in the best of ways near the end). Romano and Hunter give a loving soul to their characters, and allow them to be more realistically emotional than we normally see parents in media. They have their own struggles and issues, and it’s a delight to see them change and flow with its rhythms. Other famous faces (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant) appear as Kumail’s comedian friends, and they’re appropriately droll and funny in an honest way.

Showalter’s tendencies as a director have often skewed towards the cute and twee, and there’s absolutely no trace of any of that bullshit in The Big Sick. Like, seriously, I had to go on Wikipedia to be reminded that he’d previously made two features before this, each of which are totally tonally unlike this film. There’s a lovely naturalism to the whole thing, free of the awkward outfits and outsized personalities of his previous work, and full of the heart they lacked. He handles it like an absolute master. If you removed the humor and the elaborate work done in the screenplay to properly set them up, you’d still have an incredibly moving story, and you’d probably even have similarly great performances. But, luckily for us, the humor is still a beautiful and essential part of this film, and helps us to get deeper inside each of the characters. There’s so many great bits — Romano’s inability to land a solid joke or piece of advice to Kumail, to Hunter’s occasionally hysterical abrasiveness towards Kumail and, later, assholes who heckle him with racist jokes, to Nanjiani and Kazan’s initial film-centric flirtations (which struck hyper-close to home for me)– that each of them, if they were in separate movies, would probably be the best laugh in the whole damn runtime. But instead of getting a meager pour into a small cup from the flight attendant of comedy, we get the whole damn can.

The Big Sick will most likely go down as one of my favorite movies of the year, if not one of the best. It’s an incredibly kind-hearted and beautiful little film, and the only bad thing about it is that you guys have to wait until June to see it.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.