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Love meets identity, humor in Grinnell grad’s movie

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The Big Sick centers on the romance between an interracial couple and a Pakistani man’s struggle to develop a personal identity while defining key relationships in his life.

By Lucia Wagner

daily-iowan@uiowa.edu

The Big Sick, a hybrid between a romantic comedy and a cultured drama, débuted at FilmScene on June 13. The first three showings were soon sold out — and after viewing the motion picture, I understand the hype.

The cross-genre film, written by actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) as well as wife Emily V. Gordon (co-creator of “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail and author of Super You”), is based on the couple’s real-life romance. While Nanjiani stars as himself in the film, up-and-coming actress Zoe Kazan adopts the role of Emily.

Nanjiani is a graduate of Grinnell College, a private liberal-arts college in Grinnell, Iowa.

The Big Sick seemingly follows a quintessential independent-romance flick: two strangers meet, spend the night together, and fall in love — albeit both characters insist they are not seeking a relationship. But the automatic chemistry, clever banter — mainly sarcastic, with a hint of self-deprecation — and wit of Nanjiani and Gordon heartwarmingly prevails.

Gordon is forbidden fruit to Pakistani-American Nanjiani. Raised by Pakistani parents, the traditional fate of an arranged marriage with another Muslim threatens the relationship between the two. Nanjiani’s parents, particularly his mother (Zenobia Shroff), “ghost” their son once they learn of his secret (and white) girlfriend.

The dominant strength of The Big Sick lies in the dialogue. A nod to writers Nanjiani and real-life Gordon as they launch thoughtful discussions on Muslim culture, arranged marriage, and what constitutes the American Citizen. The audience roots for each character.

Nanjiani is admired for ultimately expressing love for his girlfriend and his humor and tenacity once he informs his parents he cannot be kicked out of the family because, as a member of the family, he has a vote in his fate.

Gordon is appreciated for her open and positive outlook on life. But her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), become the real heroes as they ultimately embrace Nanjiani before their own daughter does, despite the hurdles ahead.

The title of the film is self-explanatory. Gordon is placed in a medically induced coma while five doctors struggle to diagnose her unknown “big sick” and administer a cure. The timing of the malady is expected, if not a cliché — Nanjiani and Gordon just broke up. But Gordon’s illness presents the opportunity for a special bond to develop between Nanjiani and Gordon’s parents.

The genuineness of The Big Sick is enchanting. Yes, the film was based on real-life events; however, Kazan’s portrayal of quirky and intelligent Gordon will swiftly captivate the audience. As Nanjiani falls for Gordon, the audience falls for Gordon, too. Both characters are multidimensional — Gordon is no manic pixie dream girl, and Nanjiani is not solely a millennial funny guy.

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