‘The Big Sick’: Is it a sign of health?

The romantic dramedy is based on a real-life story.

‘The Big Sick’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The Big Sick’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Far away as the era seems to be, summer was once a time for heartfelt human stories at the movie theater. Audiences thought beach season ideal for characterdriven tales — Stand by Me was the highest-grossing August release in the summer of 1986, and Ghost the biggest July hit a few years later. American Graffiti came out in the summer. So did An Officer and a Gentleman.
Those times are about as recognizable today as mullets and boardwalk lime-rickeys. Summers now are filled with explosions, shared universes, action sequences and more brands than you can toss a comic-book at.
But those grounded days could be making their way back with The Big Sick, the new, and nuanced, romantic dramedy based on the real-life story of actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer/ producer Emily Gordon. Maybe.
The Big Sick will attempt to pull off what these days is known as a counter-programmer — Hollywood’s term for a film that isn’t like the others. In this case, the very noisy others.
In certain parts of America, it can feel like everyone is talking about Sick. Michael Showalter’s film has done exceedingly well in the big-city art-house world, grossing more than $7 million in those theaters since late June.
Najiani and Gordon wrote the story about their early courtship, with Nanjiani starring as a version of himself, an aspiring comic, and Zoe Kazan playing Gordon. Judd Apatow produced it.
Reviews have been excellent and audiences ecstatic since its Sundance debut. The Big Sick has a medical plot line, an intergenerational culture clash and complex family entanglements all around. It’s also about Muslims in post-9/11 America. Thanks to Apatow’s commercial-comedy touch, the film is funny, but it also takes on some pretty big issues.
And it does all of this in the context of a winningly intimate story.
Can such a fragile flower survive in the harsh climate of the summer? The gold standard for a Sundance-driven counterprogrammer is Little Miss Sunshine, the story of an offbeat family road trip that seduced audiences at the 2006 festival, then opened slowly in July before grossing nearly $60 million ($72 million today) and very nearly winning Best Picture.
The biggest challenge with any counter-programmer as it expands is that the hardcore audience has already seen it, and everyone else isn’t interested. You can try to build word of mouth as much as you like, but if people aren’t listening, then it doesn’t matter how good that word is. Past summers, in fact, are littered with examples of strong limited openings that fizzled when they hit 1,500 or 2,000 theaters.
Jumping the fence requires some other element, some form of cultural ignition — look at how La La Land went from what could have been a twee festival darling to massive phenomenon thanks to hummable music and appealing leads. Does The Big Sick, which has a very wide range of tones and themes, have similar assets on its side? Can it get to $30 million-$40 million total in the US or even $50 million to $60 million? (Amazon paid $12 million to acquire the movie out of Sundance.) Nanjiani says he thinks the mainstream will embrace the film precisely because it covers so much ground.
“We wanted to give this a summer release, even though it meant going against franchise tent poles and bigger comedies,” says the writer-star. “We think there are a lot of different people who can connect with it — a grandmother can see it with her 14-year-old grandson, and each of them will get something out if it. But it is nerve-racking.”
The very fact that The Big Sick is so different from much of what’s out there is, filmmakers hope, a selling point.
“It’s a very specific story of real people, and summer studio comedies don’t always to that,” says producer Barry Mendel. He compares it to what Apatow did with Trainwreck.
“He thought, ‘We never follow the drunk party-girl home; she’s usually just a friend,’” he says. “And look what a hit it became.”
Still, the difference-as-virtue is a nice notion that doesn’t always work out. For every La La Land, Ex Machina or Black Swan that hit because it determinedly didn’t look like anything else, there are numerous examples of films that didn’t.
Not to be discounted here is politics. The filmmakers readily admit that they expected to release the movie during a Hillary Clinton presidency. Now the prominence of a Muslim American and immigrant gives the movie unexpected resonance. But if this helps with some audiences, could it ding it with others? If the The Big Sick succeeds, it can undermine the nasty studio canard that religious and racial minorities in lead roles don’t play with mainstream audiences. It could also tell us something about pop culture and summer movie-going. That the idea that mainstream audiences only want big and noisy in their theater offerings — that thoughtful and intimate is a thing of summers past — simply is not true.
On one hand, it’s silly to read too much into one indie film or to saddle it with too much expectation. But in a year when box office is down and franchise fatigue is kicking in, it’s the right moment to ask if there remains hope for the quiet summer movie. When times are dark, a ray of light, or some Sunshine, can still peek through.
THE BIG SICK Directed by Michael Showalter With Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano Running time: 2 hours Rating: R (for language, including some sexual references)