Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reserved Seating: The Big Sick

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who have your prescription for summer laughs and pathos.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino. The Big Sick is the new romantic comedy from director Michael Showalter and producer Judd Apatow. It’s the based-on-a-true story of Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and his complicated courtship with writer/producer Emily V. Gordon (here Emily Gardner, played by Zoe Kazan). When their one-nighter turns into something more serious, Kumail is caught between his own affections and the orders of his strict Pakistani Muslim parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who expect him to follow tradition and accept an arranged marriage. Matters are made worse when a mysterious illness puts Emily into a medically-induced coma and forces Kumail to choose a path: walk out of Emily’s life forever or prove his worth to her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) and stay by her side until she wakes up.

Adam: In this clip, Kumail has one of his first of many awkward interactions with Emily’s parents - this time about 9/11:

It’s a very funny scene that represents many other scenes in The Big Sick, which greatly benefit from some really adept comedic performances from a deadpan Nanjiani, a sweet but dim Ray Romano and a prickly Holly Hunter. Unlike some previous Judd Apatow productions that felt heavily improvised, this one feels more focused and scripted, which helps it not wander as much as some earlier, messier (but more often than not still funny) Apatow films. I feel like an enormous dick saying this, but the straight comedy elements of The Big Sick are why I enjoy it. The heart and soul of the movie are what I feel less sure-footed about in my praise of the film. It’s a weird position because I feel like I’m reviewing someone’s life more than a movie, so I’ll tread lightly. I am still recommending The Big Sick, though. I laughed a lot during this movie.

Rob: Watching The Big Sick was a bit surreal for me. While I’m not much of a Silicon Valley guy, I am a huge fan of Kumail and Emily from their podcasts (The Indoor Kids, The X-Files Files, Harmontown, etc.) and have heard them tell the crazy story of their relationship a number of times before. Even with that said, I was absolutely delighted by The Big Sick, which functions both as a quality story in its own right and a loving deconstruction of romantic comedy tropes and clichés. It’s clear that Emily and Kumail (who co-wrote the screenplay) know rom com structure inside and out, and it’s that knowledge of story (as well as Showalter’s disciplined direction) that makes the film stand apart from its peers. These are realistic people in realistic situations. There are archetypes, but no real caricatures. There’s a meet cute, but it’s kind of ugly. There are second act misunderstandings, but not in the way we usually see them. There are dramatic declarations of love, but rarely do they produce the desired result. It’s quality stuff that’s well worth your time.
Adam: Yes, I agree that the movie is an excellent romantic comedy. I like the four lead performances very much. Kumail Nanjiani has the gift of being not only really funny with his material but also blessed with excellent delivery. I don’t really love his character all that much, but we can get into that later. Zoe Kazan is also really charming and funny (but not in a quirky, clichéd way) and it’s nice to see her in more romantic comedies after the underrated What If and Ruby Sparks. Holly Hunter is good, too, but in a way that’s almost invisible; like she’s such a pro that there’s no show-off moments. I love her. My favorite character and performance in the film, though, is Ray Romano as Kazan’s dad. Some of his observations about water, Forrest Gump, sandwiches etc. are just perfect. It’s the type of stuff you hear people randomly say in real life and they’re so funny because they come out of nowhere and yet you know this guy has been thinking about them for a long time. All in all, I really liked the movie right after I saw it last week but I’ve cooled on it a tiny bit since then.

Rob: It makes total sense to me that Romano would be your stand-out performance, as it probably makes total sense to you that Holly Hunter is mine. In a worse movie, this is the bigoted, sneering, bitter antagonist who digs in her heels and rejects Kumail for the most superficial of reasons, but not here. She’s simply defending her daughter (she knows all the horrible things Kumail has said and done) and is absolutely open to changing her mind once he has a chance to convince her. She’s smart, a bit bruised, and really elevates the film beyond the “Pakistani Muslim guy wants to date a white American girl and oh no…9/11 jokes,” etc. She’s got moxie, I tell ya. I loved her a lot. I totally agree about Ray Romano, though. His monologue about infidelity is really heartbreaking and raw. Honestly, everything about The Big Sick is heartbreaking and raw.

Adam: I’m going to bring up my gripe about the movie and I totally want you to push back if you think I deserve it (I feel like I do). I’m a little reticent to fully embrace the movie because I think it’s like a double-decker vanity project. I’m totally fine with it being a showcase for Kumail Nanjiani’s comedy; he’s great and I hope this launches him to film stardom. The part that bugs me is that I’m supposed to celebrate this real-life couple. It feels needy. I wish the movie wasn’t all about Emily and Kumail’s strained relationship, but rather more about them as a unit winning over Kumail’s family (maybe that’s the sequel??) I know I’m going to sound like I have sour grapes, but Kumail deserves to be dumped by Emily and his hanging on her bedside seems disingenuous because the film acts like it was for weeks or months when in real life I think it was days. Also, stupid gripe, but as someone who has basically online dated for the past several years, I got annoyed seeing his family do all the work for him -- introducing him to beautiful woman after beautiful woman -- and I’m supposed to feel like he’s the put-upon male in a bad situation. Ok, let me have it.
Rob: I think I see where you’re coming from, but I disagree with the premise that he’s the put-upon male. I would argue that the guy we meet at the beginning of the film is comfortable living between worlds and that Emily’s situation forces him to make a decision about who he’s going to be. Sure, there’s a parade of beautiful women coming in and out of his house every week, but they’re there to serve a construct of reality determined by his parents and their traditions. One of the things I found really interesting was the way Kumail’s struggle with his culture (as shown through the one man show) is highlighted as something of which he’s simultaneously proud and resentful. He’s not asking his parents to find him dates so he can hang out and play video games — he’s actively pushing against their whole premise so that he can form his own criteria on relationships. That’s why I find it so interesting that Emily disappears for the middle act of the film and that she rejects him when she wakes up: it’s so much more about a person learning how and why to love themselves than it is about silly misunderstandings or other rom com tropes.

As to your other point, I actually thought this WAS about them winning over the family, just not in the way we usually see. I like that it wasn’t a “love conquers all” plot that over-romanticized a life-threatening illness. It even comments on how we feel like everything should be different after a serious event like this, but that things rarely actually change. I also thought that the parts that could have easily been dramatized for a film adaption were left relatively true to life. There are no obnoxious moments where he’s forced to prove he’s THE ONLY ONE WHO TRULY UNDERSTANDS EMILY and that everyone else is wrong. It never feels constructed for story convenience. It’s never lazy.

The short answer is that I would have been a lot less interested in this film if it were about two people from different cultures who agree on everything and could be together forever if only they could convince their parents that racism is bad.

Adam: I agree with most of your points above (except the last one because I think the rocky relationship story is easier to do than one where a couple isn’t fighting imho), but I don’t really feel like passionately defending my position with The Big Sick. I liked it and think I’ll watch it on cable similar to other Apatow movies from the past, but I think I’m just a muted appreciator of The Big Sick. I have grown used to the formula of his movies, so I think I would have been a bigger fan of The Big Sick if it came out around the same time as Knocked Up. I’m absolutely giving it a Mark Ahn though and recommend it to really anyone, especially as a date movie. I have failed you in this review. Sorry, bud.

Rob: I just wanted to say that I loved the way the film handled these weird little breaches of intimacy that come up in real relationships all the time, especially with Kumail’s interactions with Ray Romano’s character. I love that Romano opens up to him about his struggles in his own marriage. Nothing is ever portrayed as simple. I also love (and would have loved more of) the way Kumail’s parents genuinely seem to be good people who love each other. Neither type of marriage is given a lower status position so that Kumail can make an easier choice. Lastly, I thought the “iPhone fingerprint” moment and the “sorry” that Kumail lets out was just a perfect encapsulation of those kinds of breaches of intimacy. I won’t say more than that because it’s so great.

But I’m rambling. Clearly The Big Sick resonated a bit more with me than it did you, which is totally fine. I was hoping that would happen again soon.
Adam: I’m glad it resonated so much with you, too. I was worried for a while that the movies were never going to get you back :-) Is this your favorite movie of the year so far?

Rob: As far as theatrical viewing, absolutely. There are some moments that drag, like when they let the comics improvise five jokes when one would do, but overall I loved what it had to say and how it said it. Mark Ahn.

Adam: That’s great. I’m glad to hear it. Random question for you before we wrap. I’m noticing that I’m starting to not want to analyze movies and why they are or are not working for me as much as I used to. It’s almost like I want to preserve the magic and let the car run without knowing how it all works under the hood. Do you feel like an analytical approach is preferable (for you) or do you also enjoy just letting a movie wash over you, do its thing and then move on to the next one?

Rob: I think it’s a great question that really highlights the differences in movie watching that I’ve noticed between myself and some others. There are a lot of movies that just, simply, are. Pirates. The Circle (#JusticeForMercer). They don’t require a lot of examination because they don’t have anything to say. I think it’s difficult to make a strong case for those movies one way or another. That said, when a movie hits me in a real way, good or bad, I’m desperately looking it over again and again to figure out why. I’m totally the kind of person who uses movies to help me understand more about myself, so the analysis (while, I agree, gets tiring in some cases) is a strong component. Plus, I’m an English teacher: my whole life is about making and refining arguments based on the art I consume.

Adam: Yeah, this question stemmed recently from a couple of things. I was talking to my parents about my first favorite movie, Pinocchio, and I was trying to deduce why it moved me so much when I was little. I rationalized it was because Pinocchio was a fuck up and I felt like I was a fuck up a lot when I was a kid in school that had a learning disability. My dad then said “I think you just really liked it a lot” and that made me think to myself that “Yeah, maybe there isn’t a deeper meaning to it than that?” and that reaction felt, in a weird way, more honest and satisfying. The second thing was a great friend of ours, F This Movie’s own Erich Asperschlager, wanted to deep dive into Baby Driver (a movie he and I both love but in possibly different ways) and I didn’t really want to; like it was perfect for me the way it lived in my head and I didn’t want to have that changed. Anyways, sorry for the long tangent. Next week we’ll be back reviewing War for the Planet of the Apes.

Rob: No, I absolutely see where you’re coming from, and I agree with just letting some things be what they are. Savor the experience. Like, the experience of...apes...taking over humanity. How’s that for a transition? Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. This still isn't expanded yet but I think it will be this weekend. Can't wait to see it

  2. I wasn't really feeling the Big Sick for the first half, but it completely won me over in the second. Def one of my favs of the year.

    I also just noticed how similar your tastes are to Siskel and Ebert, with Rob being Siskel and Adam being Ebert. It kind of blows my mind, and makes me very happy

    1. I'm fascinated by this. How in particular? Also, thanks for reading!

    2. I think that Siskel focused more on the individual pieces of a movie, while Ebert focused more on the emotional and personal experience he had watching the film. This is partly why I think they worked so well together - they each approached criticism from a different, and equally valid, place.

      Strangely, though I approach movies more like Siskel did, and I think Rob does, I find that I agree with Ebert, and you, more often!

    3. Yeah, a big reason Rob and I started reviewing together is we realized how different our approach to watching movies was. And yet, we usually agree from a Mark Ahn/Mark Off perspective. It's been fun.