The first thing you notice about the romantic tragicomedy The Big Sick is how conventionally it begins. If you don’t know where it’s going—or figure it out from the title—the first act of this movie begins like many “date movies” do. A young stand-up comic, living in Chicago, named Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani from “Silicon Valley”) meets a grad student named Emily (Zoe Kazan, playing a character very much based on Nanjiani’s real-life wife and writing partner Emily V. Gordon), and the two start dating and just generally being very cute together.
Things are made complicated when Kumail neglects to mention that his Pakistani parents have been trying for years to arrange a marriage for him, and while he’s found reasons to reject every candidate that has graced the family home, he also can’t quite commit to the idea of his marrying a non-Pakistani woman, which pushes Emily to end the relationship. And that’s all in the first 30-40 minutes of a two-hour movie (Judd Apatow produced the film, so of course it’s two hours long, but it’s a painless two hours).
Shortly after their breakup, Emily falls ill with an unknown illness, sending her to the hospital where doctors are forced to put her in a medically induced coma to help her body heal, leaving Kumail with the unpleasant task of contacting her parents (whom he’s never met) to alert them and get them to Emily’s side as soon as possible. And with that, The Big Sick puts its rom-com framework on hold and becomes a film about the importance of parents in our adult lives, and that by interacting with Emily’s family, Kumail is given some context into the wonderful person she is, and he falls deeper in love with her than ever.
Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry, are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano—a gifted actress with a flair for comedy and a gifted comedian with talent for acting—and they are confused as to Kumail’s presence at the hospital once they arrive since they know that he and Emily had broken up. But since they are from out of town, they end up leaning on Kumail as their advisor about Chicago, and they begin to form a bond that is both organic and incredibly sweet. In particular, Kumail and Terry compare notes on these glorious women, and they both realize they’d be stupid to ever let them go.
Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris) has a keen sense of when it’s okay to be slightly silly, even in more dramatic moments, and when to keep things solidly in the dramatic realm. And the more familiar you are with Nanjiani as a performer (both in stand-up and film and television), the more impressed you’ll be with the heavy lifting he’s doing as an actor in The Big Sick. This is particularly clear during any one of several stand-up routines we see him perform during the course of the film. This is not the confident comedian he is today; this is meant to be early-days Nanjiani, with B-grade material but a sense that there’s something there. We never truly get to see him kill as a comic until the movie’s last scene, and during one particularly brutal sequence, he has a complete shutdown on stage that is so believable, you feel the urge to look away from the screen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Anupam Kher (one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars) and Zenobia Shroff, who play Kumail’s parents. I’ve seen films about families that believe in arranged marriages, but they take what could have been broadly drawn characters and turn them into fully-realized people whose son underestimates them, which may hurt them more than him dating a non-Pakistani woman.
I suppose if you wanted to nitpick The Big Sick, you could complain that there’s very little dramatic tension because we know Emily doesn’t die, and I would counter that the film isn’t about whether Emily survives this medical ordeal. It’s about the unusual ways that we strengthen and deepen our connections. Of course, it’s also a comedy, and some of the funniest scenes involve Kumail’s roommates and fellow comics, played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler, each looking for their big break whenever a talent scout comes in, which isn’t often.
The Big Sick is rooted in the real story of Nanjiani and Gordon, but it takes enough diversions from the real story to keep the story and its outcome fresh. The film is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, and the entire package is completely entertaining thanks in large part to the eclectic and flawless cast. The movie is a prime example of storytelling winning the day, and I can’t wait to see what Nanjiani and Gordon come up with next, whether it’s close to the truth or complete fiction.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.