The Big Sick isn’t just the best romantic comedy since Annie Hall, it’s also trying to teach us how to live in the fractured world in which we find ourselves. Okay, maybe not. It’s probably just trying to be a heartfelt, funny, and entertaining depiction of how star and cowriter Kumail Nanjiani met and fell in love with his real-life wife, Emily Gordon. But inspiration is where you find it, as the saying goes, and The Big Sick offers up a wealth of it. This movie is full-to-bursting with ideas on unconditional love, grace, connecting with people not only, but especially, when it’s hard, and how we can all work together to make life a little easier for our fellow humans. Oh yeah, and it’s also incredibly funny.
For the screenplay, Nanjiani and Gordon teamed up to tell their story. It’s one we all know. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy and girl fight because boy is hiding the fact that his devoutly Muslim family will disown him if they find out he’s dating a non-Muslim. Girl suddenly gets sick and is put in a medically induced coma to save her life. Boy resolutely stays by girl’s side despite her parents not wanting him there. Those last twists aside, The Big Sick could have been fairly formulaic, but because of the wit and disarming earnestness of Nanjiani and Gordon’s script, it’s anything but that.
Nanjiani got his start as a stand-up comedian, which is the phase of his career we see in the movie. Good comedians can get laughs out of simple one-liners; the punchlines don’t need to be specifically connected to a greater whole for a funny effect. The Big Sick has plenty of those moments. One of the best is when Emily’s father, Terry, is desperate to make conversation with Kumail in the hospital cafeteria. In a comically cringe-worthy attempt to connect in some way to the young Pakistani-American, Terry asks Kumail his stance on the 9/11 terror attacks. His hilarious response, which he instantly regrets and apologizes for, is a perfectly timed stab of gallows humor that works to poke fun at how most Americans might expect all Muslims to respond to the question.
The best comedians get laughs by building a story, and lacing it with unique, hilarious insights throughout, while making us see the world in a novel way. This movie excels at that. You are likely to see nothing funnier this year at the movies than Kumail Nanjiani re-staging one of his earliest artistic endeavors, a one-man stage show. It’s about his upbringing in Pakistan, and the setting is his childhood bedroom. The mere presence of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie poster – which dominates the stage – is enough to elicit guffaws.
It’s hard to believe the very talented Nanjiani was ever as inept at entertaining an audience as this self-deprecating sequence makes him seem. The movie version of Kumail is obsessed with using his show to impart knowledge of his birth country to the (infinitesimal) crowds who attend his performances, so he peppers his childhood stories with facts about Pakistan’s history, culture, and major exports.
This segment is a good representation of Nanjiani and Gordon’s flair for both comedic and dramatic embellishments to their real-life story. In an interview, the two talk about the fact that the tension in their relationship before she got sick wasn’t nearly as serious as the movie makes it seem. The same goes for her parent’s reticence at allowing Kumail to be by Emily’s side during her coma. These changes can almost be interpreted as a representation of how our memory can alter past events in our own minds from what really happened. It also works to heighten the stakes of the movie while staying true to the basic kernel of what really happened, which is what Nanjiani and Gordon have said.
Whatever the case, The Big Sick deftly transitions from straight comedy to poignant drama when Emily falls prey to a mysterious illness that confounds her doctors. As she lies unconscious in a medically induced coma, Emily’s parents and Kumail slowly, and very awkwardly, get to know each other. Under difficult circumstances, the three learn that empathy and understanding make the world a much more comforting place. The movie achieves these “lessons” without ever slipping into melodrama or being didactic about it. We see these things in action through the story and the interplay of the characters, not through grand speeches or moralizing. The culmination of these themes is a scene in which Terry and Emily’s mom, Beth, go to one of Kumail’s stand-up performances to relieve some of the stress of the situation. Beth goes ballistic when an audience member starts heckling Kumail with racist insults.
In addition to Kumail Nanjiani’s excellent performance as a younger version of himself, Ray Romano delivers a career best as Terry. Emily’s dad is serious and not the best with inspirational anecdotes, and Romano’s impeccable comedic timing couldn’t be better. Holly Hunter plays Beth. She brings the character’s tenacity, maternal and otherwise, to life with a searing intensity. Zoe Kazan, as Emily, unfortunately goes missing for half the movie – her character is in a coma, after all – but she gives the sweet, budding romance between Emily and Kumail a delightful quality that warms the heart.
There is even real trepidation about how Emily will react to Kumail when she begins to recover, even though we know the two end up together in real life. The movie is masterful at conveying the idea that Kumail, along with Emily’s parents, have gone through a life-changing experience, but for Emily, nothing has changed. Her feelings about Kumail, about his inability to choose between the woman he loves and his strict religious family, are essentially preserved in amber due to her coma. It’s not easy to create suspense and emotion out of that situation when we already know the end result. The Big Sick succeeds, though, and it does so with an effortless charm.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
This really is the best romantic comedy to come along in decades. It's a perfect balance of laughter and tears.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Before seeing The Big Sick, I was completely ignorant of Kumail Nanjiani. I'm one of the last people in these United States to have not watched a single episode of Silicon Valley. Consider me converted. I was an A-Number 1 fan of The X-Files back in the day, and Nanjiani makes reference to being the same in movie. In real life, he even hosts a podcast breaking down every episode of the sci-fi series. I may have just found my next podcast obsession...
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
WAR! for the Planet of the Apes, that is. Next week, I'll be looking at the last picture in the trilogy that deals with a planet where apes evolved from men?!?! It's a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!