Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Big Sick film review: stand up comedy, stand out social commentary

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for September 2017. Its a review that met a deadline, but I sent it wishing I had a bit more time.

Big Sick
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Big Sick is stand out comedy. Well designed and cleverly paced, it offers not only warmly human humour, but a stand out depiction of the complexity of contemporary life.

The movie generates movement through the skilful use of four distinct backdrops. One is the twenty something flat. The modern flat is a backdrop against which Pakistani migrant Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and American student Emily (Zoe Kazan) tumble into love. The flat contrasts with another backdrop, that of Kumail’s family home, in which he weekly fends of his Pakistani parents’ commitment to arranging his marriage. The pace is fast-paced, an energetic plunge into the complexity of commitment across two different cultures.

A second backdrop is the hospital. In waiting room and ward, the pace of the Big Sick is slowed by Emily’s illness. While sickness renders her silent, she is given voice by the arrival of her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Kumail’s understanding of Emily is redefined by the insights Beth and Terry share. Western marriages might not be arranged. Yet Western parents are like all parents. They hold unique insights into the individuality of their children.

The triangles between each couple and their parents generate the exploration of a complex range of contemporary issues, including marriage, migration and Western attitudes to Islam.

A third backdrop is provided through the use of stand up. Comedy clubs are where Big Sick begins and ends. They are also a venue to which the movie returns at regular intervals. The result is a rhythmic repetition as we hear the same jokes. Yet with every repeated one-liner, the faces in the audience are becoming people that we know. It is like hitting refresh on the web browser. Big Sick offers familiarity in this repetition, yet enrichment as the plot develops.

These four distinct backdrops are threaded together by technology. The use of Uber, the role of fingerprint recognition in opening Emily’s iPhone and the vitality of following on Facebook nourish the on and off-again relationship of Kumail and Emily.

Religion is present in the Islamic practises of Kumail and his family. Early on, Kumail fakes his faith. His parents think he has retreated to pray in the downstairs basement. In reality, he spends his time practising cricket and watching Youtube videos. The corrosive effects of Western individualism present a stiff challenge to the future of Kumail’s childhood faith. “Why did you bring me to America, if you wanted me to marry a Muslim?” he angrily challenges his parents.

Four backdrops and the woven threads of technology ensure Big Sick is both stand up comedy and stand out social commentary. Well-crafted, cleverly paced, it offers a warmly human introduction to the ethics of modern living.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

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