In today’s movie-watching culture, festival buzz can be a killer. Look at The Witch. Early hype lauded Robert Eggers’ thriller as one of the year’s “scariest” films, which led mainstream audiences to expect something far less unconventional. In many ways, I was worried that the Judd Apatow-produced, Michael Showalter-directed The Big Sick would be slighted by similar “hilarious and heartfelt” proclamations. Could it truly be as funny and emotional as Sundance/SXSW attendees proclaimed? Short answer: 100%. Kumail Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon bare their souls in this romantic-coma-dramedy, plucking all the appropriate heartstrings. So pure. So sweet. So tender. Hype can’t derail this rollercoaster of love.
Nanjiani stars as a struggling Chicago comedian/part-time Uber driver, Kumail (hmmm). Zoe Kazan stars as a blonde therapist-in-training named Emily (double hmmm), who takes a shining to the Pakistani funnyman. What starts as a one-time fling blossoms into relationship bliss, but not everyone approves. Kumail’s mother continues to push her son into an arranged marriage, because of religious beliefs. Emily finds out, and a fight ensues – right before she falls critically ill. Kumail receives a phone call that Emily is in the ER with a lung infection, and he rushes over. Shortly after, Emily’s father Terry (Ray Romano) and mother Beth (Holly Hunter) arrive. Nervous parents, a grief-stricken ex-boyfriend, cultural barriers – Kumail’s life is about to change forever. Hopefully with a healthy Emily waking up from her medically induced coma.
On setup alone, you might expect tear-jerky tissue porn like P.S. I Love You. Something that exploits sources of inherent sadness for unavoidable down-notes. Lucky for you, no one involved wants to make another shallow rom-dram. The Big Sick punches for the gut, but scenes shy away from a visual reliance on Kazan’s comatose character. Kumail finds himself stuck between ex-boyfriend purgatory and professional comedian opportunities, both of which are complicated by “love.” A stupid word that makes us do things we’d never fathom. As Emily sleeps, Kumail must face all the current question marks in his life. Pakistani arranged marriages. Stand-up success. Emily’s family. And is it funny? Of course. But more than anything, it’s so chew-your-collar, cringe-and-cry honest.
When Emily isn’t slumbering, Kazan fights her feelings as a grad student who “doesn’t have time” for a relationship. Nanjiani honors her wishes by calling, arranging dates and “totally giving her space.” It’s the kind of unexpected love that makes for perfect Hollywood meet-ups, but then reality sets in. Life is more complicated than a written narrative and unicorn dreams, as exemplified by Kumail’s insistent mother and her harem of “appointments.” The complications are there, but Kazan and Nanjiani are better than glazed goo-goo eyes. Love is the messiest tapestry, but between Emily’s mockery of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (BLASPHEMY!) and Nanjiani’s air mattress, The Big Sick paints a beautifully interracial picture.
Then Terry and Beth enter the scene, and restless waiting turns into a life lesson from past generations. Guilt, uncertainty and anxiety all blend together as Kumail remains an outsider of sorts. That doesn’t stop Beth from going ham on a douchebro heckler during one of Kumail’s sets, and before long, everyone is up at 2AM stress-eating Chinese food (after pizza for dinner). A (Greater) Middle Eastern native finds himself embracing two mid-western white folks, while his real parents force religious conformity that would shun their families becoming one. Not to say that Emily’s condition is made insignificant, but dramatics are primarily driven by interpersonal connection. The stakes are made clear, it’s just that Kumail learns from the unexpected relationships he forms while his *hopeful* love lays unconscious – not independent adventures.
The Big Sick somehow gestates a saccharine-sweet romance while lives hang in the balance, never tipping either emotional scale too heavily. Both humor and heart dance hand-in-hand, twirling around the Grim Reaper like he doesn’t exist. It’s a tightrope tango, but Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have written a two-hour script that builds value in each scene. Maybe you can shave two minutes – if you look really hard – but duration is earned through awkward sleepover bathroom breaks and the quietest, most second-hand glances. This is a movie about life. Bigger than love. Bigger than hope. Bigger than anything. Just life, and all its attempts to wear you down – and how you’ll never let it.
The Big Sick is less a bitter pill and more a genuine story about love, individuality and - biggest of all - life's beautiful imperfections.