Real life story The Big Sick looks and feels like a romantic comedy, but is so much more thanks to its masterful writing and performances.
“So, what’s your stance on 9/11?”
Yes, that’s an actual line that’s uttered in the Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon written film The Big Sick. However, in this movie, which takes a deep look at the cultural clash that often occurs for minorities in this country, the line comes off as endearing. So much of the movie is about learning about other people, their pasts, and what drives them. It’s just that in the case of The Big Sick it’s an ex-boyfriend and his ex’s parents that are doing the learning.
Love always comes with baggage. However, it’s the way we deal with that baggage that often determines the fate of relationships. But what if you couldn’t confront that baggage head-on? Nanjiani, who plays himself in this movie, meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) after one of his stand-up gigs in Chicago — Bo Burnham, SNL’s Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler play his friends and fellow comedians. The two instantly hit it off. Kumail’s self-deprecating confidence and Emily’s youthful energy mesh perfectly. However, after spending the night together, Emily says that she can’t get involved in a serious relationship — she’s getting her masters in psychology. Of course, Kumail woos his way back into her life. There are no big romantic gestures or unrealistic proclamations of love. Still, you find yourself grinning your way through the first part of the movie.
All the while, Kumail’s traditional Pakistani parents — his father, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and mother, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), both actors are standouts — present him with a plethora of often comical women for marriage. As Kumail puts it in one of his sets, “In Pakistan, arranged marriage is just called, marriage.” These scenes feel isolated from the rest of the movie until Kumail’s two worlds come crashing together. It’s refreshing to see a romantic lead with a different background and different set of difficulties when it comes to family and romance.
Eventually, Emily wonders why she hasn’t met Kumail’s family as Kumail tries his hardest to keep her and his family as far away apart as possible — his parents don’t know about her and are still presenting him with potential wives. When it all becomes too much for Emily, the pair breaks up. Things are complicated, however, when the eponymous “big sick” comes for Emily and she goes into a medically induced coma. Since no one else can, Kumail is the one that informs her parents and is there when they arrived. It goes about as well as meeting your ex-girlfriend’s parents when she has just slipped into a coma could go. Not well.
The movie makes its shift from romance to dramedy focusing on very different people forced together by a tough situation beautifully thanks to director Michael Showalter’s masterful handling of the tone and the two best performances in the movie. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents are the kinds of supporting performances that feel so much larger than they are because they control every minute of screen time they have. As Kumail and Emily’s parents circle each other like cowboys preparing for a shootout, there are moments of understanding and education. In the most memorable scene of the film, a racist heckler disrupts one of Kumail’s sets while Emily’s parents watch on. Beth, Emily’s mom, confronts the heckler in a way that you can only imagine a bereaved mother can. Kumail looks on with surprise at her gusto, while later Emily’s parents marvel at the fact that Kumail has to deal with that kind of behavior.
As the movie goes on, different obstacles are put into place and are handled often hilariously. And in a show of strong directing, even the smallest roles make a big impact. Akhtar and Shroff, Nanjiani’s parents in the film, are more cartoonish versions of what you’d expect his parents to be like, but it’s delightful and makes their payoff at the end of the movie even better. Burnham delivers one-liners like no other. Even roles as small as one of Emily’s nurses (Myra Lucretia Taylor) have their moments. Still, the emotional, and comedic, core of the movie still lie with Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano. They play characters that are naturally funny so that even in serious moments they can make you laugh and cry at the same time. They, along with Showalter and Kazan, have to be credited with getting you emotionally invested in the outcome of the story, even if you know what happens in the end.
Too often do people say a movie “saves” a genre. Mad Max: Fury Road “saved” action movies. The Cabin in the Woods “saved” horror. However, the same way it’s wrong to say The Dark Knight saved comic book movies, it’s a disservice to say The Big Sick saves romantic comedies. The Big Sick isn’t a romantic comedy. However, it doesn’t really fit into any other category either. For once, a movie wasn’t made to fit any marketing campaign. It was made to service a story. And a hell of a story it is.