'The Big Sick'
The rom-com has been in rough shape over the last few years. Thankfully, Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon were able to take their unique and true love story and transform it into one of the most moving, hilarious and original spins on age-old romantic comedy tropes in years.
The film essentially crams an entire traditional rom-com into its first act before diverting into something more interesting. Nanijiani plays a version of himself from a decade or so ago, a struggling stand-up comedian in Chicago constantly dodging the arranged marriage setups of his Muslim parents (Zenobia Shroff and Bollywood star Anupam Kher). He meet-cutes Emily (Zoe Kazan) at a show and they slowly fall in love. Some tension brews in the ways the soon-to-be psychologist Emily opens herself up and Kumail remains closed off, terrified by how his family would react to him dating outside his religion. They have a big break-up fight and then, shortly afterwards, Emily is struck by a sudden illness that confuses ER doctors and leaves her in a medically induced coma. In that awkward and tragic scenario, Kumail meets Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), leading to a new parental courting process, emotional meltdowns, and mercifully no ‘Sleeping Beauty’ references.
What’s most striking about ‘The Big Sick’ is the film’s honesty. That’s not to say the movie is a work of staunch Dogme realism. It’s glossy and stylized enough to play as a mainstream comedy. It just feels emotionally true in a way that few rom-coms manage. The true story may have been heighted for extra laughs and maximum emotional impact, but it feels real and, more importantly, all of the characters have a certain broken toy quality that prevents them from falling into obvious archetypal boxes. There’s a sense that these characters existed before the film began and will live on long after the credits roll. That’s not easy. The script from first-time screenwriters Nanijiani and Gordon is remarkable, undoubtedly helped by Judd Apatow’s presence as a producer.
Significant credit needs to be dolled out to director Michael Showalter as well, an underrated comedic genius who spent the first few decades of his career cranking out meta comedies like ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ and ‘The Baxter’ that archly mocked their own forms. In last year’s ‘Hello, My Name Is Doris’, he showed an emotionally sincere side that translates beautifully into ‘The Big Sick’. Since Showalter spent so long mocking the screenwriting and sentimental excess of cheesy rom-coms, he has little patience for cornball clichés and keeps the movie from ever diverting into manipulation. It feels painfully, awkwardly, and hilariously real in ways that are hard to achieve in something this unabashedly romantic and hilarious.
The cast is also terrific. Nanjiani builds on the cute dork persona he’s developed in projects like ‘Silicon Valley’ into an achingly honest and heartbreakingly hilarious turn here. Zoe Kazan does a wonderful job of creating a character of depth in minimal screen time and leaves an absence when her health pulls her out of the story. The parents are also perfectly cast with Kher and Shroff finding humor, heart and warmth in roles that easily could have been little more than dramatic stumbling blocks for the central love story.
Best of all are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Romano uses his nasally Queens drawl and natural sad sack expressions to create a deeply lovable nerd over his head, while Hunter provides the irrepressible fire and subtle frailty that she brought to films like ‘Broadcast News’. Both are rounded and endearing, which is important since so much of the rom in this com is dedicated to Kumail’s relationship with them. Finally, some of Nanjiani’s comic friends including Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant improv some scene-stealing laughs in a mini study of the stand-up world that serves as a backdrop. An incredible cast was assembled to bring this brilliant script to life and everyone serves the material well.
On a certain level, ‘The Big Sick’ is sweeping entertainment serving up all the laughs, smiles and tears required in the genre. It’s a crowd-pleaser that successfully pleases crowds through a story that is deeply personal and specific. The film touches on so many wonderful truths about relationships, but it’s most poignant in the subtle details. It perfectly captures the little moments that build to larger connections and finds humor in identifiable behavior as much as jokes.
It’ll be a tough act to follow for Nanjiani and Gordon unless they have another devastating shared experience that they can translate into moving comedy. Even if they don’t, this feels like a rare rom-com that’ll be around for a while, a hysterically entertaining comedy that sneaks up on viewers with hidden truths. It’s the type of thing that James L. Brooks used to crank out with ease in his prime and hopefully the sort of thing that the team behind this beautiful little movie will be able to deliver again somewhere down the road.