1/10 The Big Sick sits at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes after earning an audience favorite award at March’s South by Southwest and the second-largest studio purchase — $12 million — at January’s Sundance Film Festival.
It is actively, aggressively bad. I could see the argument that the lead creatives made the movie they wanted to make, but with that comes the acknowledgement that the movie they wanted to make is self-absorbed and boring and actively hinders the audience from engaging with it.
The Big Sick is the heavily fictionalized story of writers Kumail Nanjiani (himself), who also stars, and Emily V. Gordon (Zoe Kazan). Nanjiani, a struggling Chicago stand-up comic, and Gordon meet at one of his sets and begin dating. After a big dumb fight that didn’t happen in real life, Gordon develops a mysterious lung infection that calls for a medically induced coma. Nanjiani and her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), wait in the hospital for her to become well again.
The Big Sick is one of the most thoroughly boring movies I have ever seen. From a bird’s-eye view, the plot is thin and personal to the point that you’d have to already care about the characters to care about the story — a tacky pit to fall into, given that the screenwriters were writing about themselves — and the movie doesn’t do much of anything to make me care about them. From a scene-to-scene perspective, it’s absolutely painful to watch.
The Big Sick is mostly about comedians and one comedian’s romantic relationship with a similarly sarcastic woman, and it runs into a ton of meta-performance problems. Any time there’s a show within a show, whether or not the fictional show is good is often a factor in the real show’s plot. This can create razor-thin margins for execution very quickly — think movies like Black Swan or Birdman in which the main characters’ arcs are toward becoming better performers, and the films necessarily have to deliver several versions of the same performance at different levels of competence.
The Big Sick has a constant stream of stand-up in the background, and scenes in the romance plot keep that style of humor, but it is completely unclear whether we’re watching effective cringe-humor based performances, performances so bad that we’re supposed to cringe in ways the comic doesn’t want us to, or whether or not the scene is serious. The writing and Michael Showalter’s directing style — “style” is really too strong of a word for it — are completely consistent throughout, regardless of what the scene is going for.
Not knowing whether I’m supposed to be laughing with the characters or at them, I end up just not laughing. Since so much of the humor starts as an apparently serious story that branches into absurdism, by the time serious plot points arrive, I similarly spend the entire scene confused, waiting for the twist the movie spent the past hour training me to expect. Some movies are just boring — this one lies to you.
And don’t tell me it’s supposed to be ambiguous or up to the viewer to decide! Black Swan and Birdman, those are ambiguous — the filmmakers are deliberately planting certain questions in viewers’ minds using cinematic technique and leaving them unanswered. The Big Sick uses a lack of cinematic technique to make the viewer fight to try and find meaning it doesn’t have.
That’s not even mentioning the big, bold Storytelling 101 errors. Stories don’t just need conflict, they are conflict. The excitement in the story comes from the audience rooting for the characters against opposition. While there are several conflicts in The Big Sick, they are all minimized in favor of what’s meant to be funny little relationship scenes, and most of them suck anyway.
The closest thing the movie has to an overarching conflict is that between Nanjiani and his family. The family, Pakistan natives and conservative Muslims, believes in arranging marriages, and there’s a lot of racism baked into that. Nanjiani stresses several times that he’ll be disowned if his mother finds out he’s dating a white woman. While it’s the only tension that comes close to spanning the entire movie, it functions much more as a secondary plot, and Nanjiani’s character arc is toward simply ignoring it.
With the most well-fleshed out conflict undermining itself, the film’s apparent main conflict — the one that its plot rides on — is the big fight between Nanjiani and Gordon that didn’t happen in real life. This conflict isn’t introduced until halfway into the movie, and then Gordon goes into a coma, so it’s on hold until the last few minutes.
I should point out that fictionalizing or heightening real events isn’t necessarily a problem, but adding in this clichéd fight and other elements — Nanjiani drives for Uber in his free time and is heckled at one point about going back to ISIS, neither of which existed in 2007 — it’s just odd. The fight and Uber references pander better to a wider audience, but The Big Sick was sent to two festivals and then spent three weeks in limited release. Wide is not the audience here. What’s more, the standard rom-com fight opens up a gaping plot hole — why is Nanjiani taking care of Gordon in the hospital months after they’ve broken up?
The references to Uber and ISIS serve to modernize the movie, but why? Why not just set it in 2007 and not have weird anachronisms in your movie?
I genuinely have no idea why The Big Sick is getting this level of critical reception. It’s lazily made, nonsensically written and tough to watch.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.