The fact of the matter is, Judd Apatow makes long movies. He makes them as a director, climbing steadily from The 40-Year-Old Virgin (116 minutes) to Knocked Up (129 minutes) to Funny People (a staggering 146 minutes) back down to This is 40 (134 minutes), before receding to the relatively lean, mean 125 minutes of Trainwreck. The films he produces are equally lengthy, from the 113 minutes of Superbad to the 125 minutes of Bridesmaids to the 124 of The Five-Year Engagement, a film I still remember critics joking had played out in real time. (Even episodes of Love, the rom-com series he produces for Netflix, often runs closer to forty minutes than the traditional thirty.) And since we’ve been conditioned to expect big-screen comedies to play out in 90 to 100 minutes, 105 tops, every time there’s a new Apatow movie that unspools closer to 120, there’s a predictable chorus of head-scratching and bellyaching.
The latest Apatow production, Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, runs a minute shy of two hours, and the complaints began clear back at its Sundance premiere in January (Collider’s Matt Goldberg wrote, “If there’s one glaring flaw with The Big Sick, it’s that it goes on a little too long, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that it was produced by Judd Apatow”; Huffington Post’s Matt Jacobs concurred, “Like all Apatow productions, this one is about 20 minutes too long”). They continue as it rolls out this week: Vulture’s Emily Yoshida warns it “risks being too long,” JoBlo’s Erik Walkuski deems it “quite epic-length for a comedy of this sort,” and NJ.com’s Stephen Witty complains of its “unwillingness to tighten scenes that run too long.” And look, I get it – it’s an easy complaint to make, lest you seem too much of a pushover for a film this delightful. But the sneering is silly. The Big Sick is a better film for being longer and richer; the best stuff in it would also be the first to go in a tight, conventional cut.
The film is written by stand-up and actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, and is based on their meeting and courtship; Nanjiani plays himself, while Zoe Kazan steps in as the Gordon avatar. They pen what amounts to two movies in one: a boy-meets-girl comedy, and a girl-gets-sick drama, but with generous helpings of both tones throughout. And its loose running time doesn’t convey some sort of inefficiency – we meet him (briefly, with a biographical stand-up bit, illustrated like a documentary, that breezily establishes both the film’s comic style and his backstory), they meet (quickly), and the central conflict is established. Nanjiani’s family are observant Muslims, insisting that he find his wife via the traditional arranged marriage, so the film spends a fair amount of time at their family dinners, which are frequently crashed by “surprise” visits from young, single Pakistani women.
Could there be fewer of those? Sure. But how often have we seen a family like this one, in any form of American media? And how marvelous is it that we meet a variety of these women; it would have been very easy to make them all cartoons and buffoons, distractions from his real true love, but most are genuinely charming and lovely, and when he tells one of them he’s just not looking for an arranged marriage, she asks, with genuine hurt, “So why did you meet me?” He assures her, “You deserve better than me,” being the good guy, but she’s not hearing it: “People always tell me what I deserve. It’s bullshit.”
A line like that underscores the value of including a woman’s voice in a story like this, and one of The Big Sick’s best qualities (one, it has been noted, often lacking in Apatow’s own early scripts) is that Emily is a genuinely funny character, who’ll joke as she leaves his apartment for the first time, “I only have sex once on the first date,” and who responds to his high-pressure presentation of a favorite movie with this priceless line: “I love it when men test me on my taste.” They have a pretty good thing going, in other words, but then she finds out about all the arranged brides, and that he hasn’t even told his parents about the woman he says he loves, and when she asks, pointedly, “Can you imagine a world in which we end up together?” and he can’t give her an answer, she understandably bolts.
And then shit gets real, really fast; such is life. Shortly after their break-up, Kumail gets a call that Emily’s gone into the hospital, sick with a massive lung infection that will take a medically induced coma to examine. Kumail is suddenly doing a hospital bedside vigil for a girl he broke up with – at least until her parents show up, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who breeze in like it’s the sixth or seventh movie about this couple, so at home are they in these roles and with each other. The tension between the spurner and the parents of the sprunee is palpable, and thick; “I am not sure why you’re here,” the mother informs him, cuttingly. “She tells us everything.” But over the course of those days and weeks, they grow comfortable with their daughter’s former beau, and vice versa; meanwhile, he observes the warmth between them giving way to fights and irritations, in which years of history come into play. In between, they spend a long evening together, the night before Emily’s make-or-break surgery, in which secrets are told and bonds are forged, and all three characters (and actors) reveal unexpected depths and dimension.
Seeing The Big Sick a second time, with the Sundance complaints about its duration still rattling around in my head, I did a bit of timing. Roughly 50 minutes – nearly half the movie – passes between the arrival of the parents to the point at which it turns back into a romance. Within that, the night-before-surgery sequence clocks in at exactly 15 minutes; there’s about another ten just between Nanjiani and Romano, in which we discover the source of the parental tension; and then, past that point, there is about 15 minutes between when most movies would end, and when this one does.
I’m sure any studio executive – hell, any choosy audience member – could suggest plenty of cuts within those sections that would get this movie down to the hour-forty, hour-forty-five that we expect of our rom-coms. And every single one of them would make it a lesser movie, conforming to the plot-driven strictures of too much commercial filmmaking. It would be a movie about what happened to Kumail and Emily, rather than a movie about how it happened. Those sidebars and detours, those conversations and confessions, are what give the movie its life, and its texture. Without them, cut to a “normal” length, The Big Sick is robbed of what makes it special – it’s just another bad rom-com. And we’ve got plenty of those.
“The Big Sick” is out Friday.