There this thing which happen when comedians create autobiographical material and then cast themselves in it. Like, it’s an extension of everything they put up on stage, the way they turn experiences into stories, how their life is deliberately distorted around this stage persona they create. Everything around a comedian has to turn into comedy. Otherwise it never happened. It’s where the power of confession comedians comes from, the most unexpected thing we could possibly see on the stage is life.
We’ve seen this effect come up before in Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House or Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me (the film, not the set). These comedians are playing themselves, or a version of themselves, and they surround themselves with actors just filling in for every other person in their life. There’s a reflectiveness to it which at its worst can turn performances into elaborate exercises in self consciousness, they’re being as authentic as they can be but that has to be filtered through the artifice constructed around them.
Sometimes that just implodes, like the set Kumail tries out in this film unable to turn his personal tragedy into the comic gold he needs to pass his audition and get his big break. Sometimes, like in this film, The Big Sick, it turns into something that feels pure and honest to God a little bit revelatory. Sure, the story of a hapless dude falling over himself for some woman in distress is like so passé, and really a little bit shitty if you actually stop and think about it for a second, but Emily V. Gordon, cowriter with Kumail Nanjiani and the other half of the relationship the film built on, makes her presence felt on the page.
Zoe Kazan does a hell of a lot in her performance to keep the character from becoming sick girl, beautiful girl, dying girl. During the time when she vital she commands the screen. Director Michael Showalter pushes her out front and centre from the very start, and Kumail for his part lets her lead the game letting her be this effortlessly charming presence. They give her most of the best lines too. Then when she confined to a hospital bed the film keep it’s distance. Her body is not used as a tool, or a prop, or a device, there no tearful bedside scenes where the camera lingers over her comatose form, we are kept at a distance during her recovery, it’s a class A fucking lesson on how to respect your characters.
The reason that the film don’t die during this section though is cos Kumail actually manage to be an interesting person too. The film based on his early years as a standup, trying to make sense of the industry. His relationship set against the backdrop of auditions for the Montreal comedy festival, the sorta thing that when you’re starting you believe could make you, even if that not necessarily the case. Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant play his (more successful) friends with such joy, they funny people.
From the other side his family are pushing him into living the life of a good Pakistani Muslim they are building for him. One which don’t got a place for his comedy career, his agnosticism, or his interest in a girl who ain’t a Pakistani Muslim. Boy, this could come across real mean spirited but you do really get the sense that Kumail and Emily as writers got a lot of love for their family. They make this family full of love, it shines out of their performances even if the film’s construction fights against it.
It the same with all the characters I could care to mention I guess, they’ve constructed a film which don’t got a mean frame in it. It’s a story about love but it’s also a spectacularly loving film. I guess here I’ve spoken a lot about the relationship of the screenwriters, as though the script comes anywhere close to their reality, but you can see through its words, through the way it gives time, the way it relaxes into itself, that they compassionate people. You gotta include Michael Showalter in that too, the spaces he creates are open and accepting ones, the characters and actors feel at home in them.
It just a real lovely film, it’s warm and cosy and I see myself watching this under a blanket on a cold, lonely night in the future. They been saying it’s the best rom-com in a while, far as I can remember it’s the first rom-com in a while and it’s good to see it back. As far as confessional comedy goes, it right up there with Tig Notaro’s LIVE. That’s high praise.
The Big Sick is currently screening in UK cinemas