Review: “The Big Sick”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Boy meets girl.  Boy falls for girl.  Boy loses girl.  Girl falls into a coma.  It sounds like a plot whipped up just for film, but it actually is the real-life love story of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon—which they then turned into a screenplay for a film because when you’re in the business that’s what you do, I guess.  But I’m happy to report that “The Big Sick,” which is directed by Michael Showalter and stars Nanjiani in the lead, is the rare romantic comedy that goes beyond merely being romantic and funny—it’s also very honest and perceptive regarding relationships, both in general and across different cultures.

Nanjiani’s character in the film is also named Kumail, a young Pakistani man living in Chicago as an Uber driver/stand-up comedian.  He frequently sees his family, who follow traditional Muslim customs; his mother (Zenobia Shroff), hopes for an arranged marriage for her son, and has a different Pakistani girl drop in every time he comes over, despite his obvious reluctance.  After one of his shows, Kumail meets graduate student Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), and they hit it off instantly.  Despite vowing to never see each other again, their series of casual encounters grows into something more serious, but Kumail never tells his family about Emily, afraid they will disown him if they know that he is seeing a white girl.  When Emily finds out about this, she breaks up with Kumail, and they part ways.

This all happens before the movie is even halfway over.  Sometime later, Kumail receives a phone call from one of Emily’s friends.  Emily is in the hospital with a serious lung infection, and will have to be placed in a medically-induced coma so the doctors can figure out what is wrong with her.  It’s at this point that he gets in touch with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who come in from North Carolina.  They have never met, but they know the circumstances of Kumail’s break-up with Emily, and are immediately cold toward him.  But gradually, as Kumail refuses to leave the hospital, they overcome their differences and begin to bond over their shared love for Emily—who Kumail’s family still doesn’t know about.

The Big Sick 2
Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) get off to a rocky start with Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani)

The story is told through a talented and immensely likeable cast that all have fantastic chemistry with each other.  Kumail and Emily are so charming, both independently and together, that it’s hard not to root for them to overcome their differences.  Kazan is wonderful, and her presence is always felt even when her character is not onscreen—a situation that in and of itself is rather unique for a rom-com.  And it’s hard to ask for a better actor in the lead than Nanijani.  As the protagonist, he gets all the best, funniest lines, and delivers them with impeccable timing.  But he also gives the film the heart that it needs to succeed.  He nails the emotional scenes, in particular one toward the end, as he realizes that he loves Emily but that she may never wake up for him to make things up to her.  He also perfectly conveys the cultural struggle his character has, as he wants to please his family and honor his roots (Kumail does, after all, craft a whole one-man show around Pakistan), but he also wants to lead a typical American lifestyle.  His scenes with his mother, father (Anupem Khar), brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife Fatima (Shenaz Treasury) are some of the funniest in the movie, but it’s also clear that the movie, rather poking fun at their culture, is using humor to illustrate the different lifestyles Kumail is caught between.

Kumail also has great chemistry with Romano and Hunter, whose characters become parental figures to him in a way.  The development of their relationship is actually more interesting to watch unfold than Kumail and Emily’s is.  In a short space of time they go from strong dislike to awkward acquaintances to having an easy camaraderie, but it all happens in a way that feels natural.  Beth has a strong personality while Terry is a bit calmer but also at times hilariously awkward; both actors are very well suited to their roles, and turn in strong supporting performances.  The cast also includes some of Kumail’s fellow comedian friends, including Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and his roommate Chris, played by Kurt Braunohler.

It seems like stating the obvious to say that Nanjiani and Gordon’s witty and heartfelt script is what really makes the movie, but it is.  It’s filled with funny one-liners and hilariously awkward exchanges of dialogue that, beyond the humor, also calls out a lot of stereotypes people hold against people from different cultures.  Take, for instance, the first real conversation that Kumail has with Terry and Beth.  Terry asks Kumail what his thoughts are on 9/11, implying that he always wanted to talk to a Muslim about it.  But later, Terry and Beth end up defending Kumail when a heckler shouts during his stand-up routine that he should go back to ISIS; the way Kumail brushes the remark aside makes it apparent that this isn’t the first time he’s heard that.

Appropriately, the film isn’t laugh-out-loud funny throughout, as most of the story does revolve around a potentially serious illness—although the film also never gets as serious as you’d think that sort of situation would warrant.  But the balance between humor and heart, comedy and drama, is always spot on—never corny, never inappropriate.  Interestingly, the story does end without resolving a couple conflicts, which is both a tad annoying but also gives the characters and their relationships another layer of realism—after all, real life situations aren’t usually resolved so quickly and easily.

“The Big Sick” is the kind of movie that will likely hold up in repeated viewings, and not just because it is funny and sweet.  The film tackles everything from awkward everyday occurrences to big life-changing events with a light yet thoughtful touch.  It helps that the characters come across as real people who you could actually go out and meet in real life.  Maybe that’s because this film is so closely based on real life, giving Nanjiani and Gordon an edge to contribute a memorable entry to a genre that in recent years most writers just can’t seem to get right.  They breeze through the typical boy meets girl story.  And they do get it right.

Runtime: 120 minutes. Rated R.

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