Film & Television

‘The Big Sick’ — One Mother of a Rom-Com

What’s really refreshing in The Big Sick is that while Kumail’s family situation is undeniably funny, it’s never served up without a healthy dose of respect. Kumail bristles at his mother’s expectations (as he puts it, she would rather he be “A doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, about a thousand other professions, then ISIS, then a stand-up comic”). But, he insists they can’t actually throw him out of the family. He cares that they accept his choices, his career and, once he accepts it himself, his love for Emily.

Emily’s mother Beth comes into the story with a different type of prejudice. Masterfully played by Oscar-winner Holly Hunter, Beth is anti-Kumail because he broke her daughter’s heart. “Yeah,” she informs him in the hospital waiting room, “She tells me everything.” Beth has a take-no-prisoners attitude. If her daughter isn’t in a position to fight, she’ll do the fighting for her — against the inferior hospital’s administration (“Northwestern is ranked first; we’re moving her to Northwestern.”), against her philandering husband Terry (a bumbling and so unfunny that he’s funny Ray Romano), and most certainly against the louse who broke her daughter’s heart. Whether or not he’s Pakistani doesn’t come into the picture.

That is, until Beth and Terry go to Kumail’s comedy act. A drunk and belligerent audience member heckles Kumail with a racial slur, and faces the wrath of Beth. The pint-sized mother lunges at the enormous frat boy and his face registers not only shock but legitimate fear. Hunter, who has twin boys herself, becomes the epitome of a mother lion. Her relationship with Beth is a driving force in the film. “That kind of familial love is totally in the realm of my experience,” she recently said in an interview, “I thought it would be so wonderful to get the opportunity to describe the relationship between two women — a grown daughter and a mother — where there’s mutual like. There’s mutual affection, mutual love between them.” After some initial resistance, that like, affection, and love is naturally transferred to Kumail as well.

In Hunter’s next movie, Strange Weather, she plays another determined mother. The genre here is different though. Hunter plays a grieving woman, whose son killed himself some years before. She finds out that his best friend has opened a successful business based on her son’s concept and she suspects that his death may not have been a suicide after all. She sets out to confront the friend and find justice for her son. Strange Weather, which opens in limited release later this month, has had mixed reviews to date. But, even those who found the film lacking have praised Hunter’s portrayal.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy her impeccable work in a film that truly deserves it. If you haven’t seen The Big Sick, do. In a season that is always overrun with big budgets, superheroes and special effects, it’s a joy to watch two “real people” (albeit unusually witty, clever and attractive “real people”) fall in and out and back in love. And, it’s particularly satisfying that their mothers have so much to do with it.

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  • Lindsey Kinsella July 29, 2017 at 6:59 am

    I was looking forward to seeing this film until I read, ‘they actually do end up together’. Perhaps I’m naive, but is this a spoiler?