The Big Sick
2017, R, 119 min. Directed by Michael Showalter. Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Aidy Bryant, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, Adeel Akhtar.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 30, 2017
Success tends to breed copycats. So when The Big Sick does gangbusters – and God I hope it does gangbusters, it surely deserves to – some dumbass Hollywood suit is probably gonna wanna make more coma comedies. That’s the wrong takeaway. What said suit should be ordering are more romantic comedies this intimate and ambitious and allergic to the genre’s punishing sameness in stories being told, the blindingly white sameness of the people telling the stories.
Comic Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and his wife Emily V. Gordon wrote the script, inspired by their own courtship, which is to say there’s something of a spoiler already baked into the backstory. Nanjiani, deadpan-perfection, plays the fictionalized version of himself, a struggling stand-up comedian in Chicago who is close with his parents (Kher and Shroff) but not exactly forthcoming about his ambivalence about the parade of Pakistani women of a marriageable age who always seem to be “in the neighborhood” whenever Kumail comes to family dinner. His parents want desperately to arrange a marriage for him to a nice Muslim girl, but then happenstance puts in his path a feisty blond grad student named Emily (Kazan, playing Gordon’s surrogate). In the film’s compact first act, Kumail and Emily blaze through very funny, and very sweet, new-relationship markers: the pillow talk and personality litmus tests, as when Emily charmingly bristles at Kumail watching her watch one of his favorite films: “I love it when men test me on my taste.”
And then there is the second spoiler, spelled out in the title itself: Kumail and Emily’s relationship is thrown a curveball when Emily is hospitalized with a potentially fatal illness. From a strictly storytelling perspective, benching the love interest is a big honking curveball – a daring deviation from the expected beats of the genre, and an unexpected boon. Once Emily is put into a medically induced coma, this romantic comedy expands to include her parents, Terry (Romano) and Beth (Hunter), who fly in from North Carolina to sit bedside. Thrown together, Kumail is courting them, too. It’s a shame to lose Kazan in this stretch – she is, as ever, an electrifying presence onscreen, and our previously introduced dipshit Hollywood producer friend has clearly been sleeping on the standout work she’s been doing in indie film. The trade-off is Hunter and Romano’s barky, lived-in chemistry, and their subtle reflection of Emily and Kumail’s own dynamic of a fiery, determined woman, and her well-intentioned but tentative partner.
Producer Judd Apatow has shown a special aptitude at nurturing personal projects from comedians (including Amy Schumer with Trainwreck and, at HBO, Lena Dunham with Girls and Pete Holmes with Crashing). The Big Sick is as personal as it gets, but Gordon and Nanjiani pull no punches and steer well clear of preciousness. I laughed plenty at their film, cried my guts out, too, and went home elated. The romantic comedy has been declared dead about as many times as Wile E. Coyote ran himself off a cliff, but he always bounced back, and so will the rom-com, so long as there are passionate new practitioners of the genre around like Gordon and Nanjiani.