It’s hard to imagine seeing a more charming movie in 2017 than The Big Sick, which hits all the right romantic comedy notes with one unusual distinction: It feels like real life.
That’s probably because The Big Sick is written by married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. He’s a stand-up comic and star of HBO’s Silicon Valley, and she’s a writer and executive producer of shows like Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail; the couple also worked together on their now-ended podcast The Indoor Kids. The Big Sick — which stars Nanjiani as a version of himself, alongside Zoe Kazan as Emily — is based on their real-life romance. Directed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, My Name is Doris), the film is funny and sweet while not backing away from matters that romantic comedies don’t usually touch on, like serious illness, struggles in long-term marriages, and religion.
Why don’t those topics crop up much in comedy? Probably because most comedies follow the old “dinner party rule,” which deems it rude to bring up anything too serious or divisive at the table. Religion certainly counts, and life-threatening illness is generally a killjoy.
But as writers, Gordon and Nanjiani just go for it. The pair gamely drops in jokes about being a Muslim in America today — via quips about terrorism and 9/11 — and jokes about life-threatening illness, and they work because they’re rooted in a gentle, knowing irony that can only come from experience.
The film picks up with Kumail in his struggling-comic phase, driving an Uber and doing sets on stage at a comedy club in Chicago, then trekking out to his parents’ house in the suburbs for mandatory family dinners. He’s Pakistani and was raised Muslim, and though he’s not sure he subscribes to the beliefs he grew up with, his parents are still set on finding him a wife by bringing every single girl in their community over for dinner. (The girls arrive with headshots, which he pitches into a cigar box on his dresser when he gets home.)
But he’s smitten by a girl who heckles him at a show one night — Emily — and they hook up. Both seem allergic to commitment, but their relationship starts to take on a life of its own. Eventually they admit they’re together, even while Kumail keeps Emily a secret from his parents, who definitely would not be thrilled.
And then, one day, Emily lands in the hospital with a mysterious infection. Her parents come to town. Kumail finds himself spending time with them while Emily’s battle grows more serious. Life gets real.
The Big Sick feels authentic because it isn’t afraid of complexity
“Authentic” is an overused word in movie reviews, but there’s no better way to describe The Big Sick: Every inch of it feels true, and not just because it’s drawn from real life. The performances play a big role — both Kazan and Nanjiani are born scene-stealers, with deadpan delivery and sparkling chemistry. Emily and Kumail’s conversations are hysterical even when they’re talking about mundane matters; you can imagine the real-life Nanjiani and Gordon writing them by sitting on the couch and improvising first.
Meanwhile, The Big Sick’s great supporting cast really fleshes out the rest of the film, most notably Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s imposing mother. Rarely in intergenerational comedy are parents and adult children granted equal complexity, but in The Big Sick, we start to understand the inner lives of Kumail and Emily’s parents as much as Kumail and Emily themselves.
But it’s the plot that ultimately drives the film’s authenticity home. Choosing to tell a story about a life-threatening, long-term illness is hard enough; structuring a romance around it is even harder, especially if you’re trying to keep your audience from feeling like you pulled a bait-and-switch on them.
In The Big Sick, though, Emily’s illness give the film an excuse to bring in Hunter and Romano, and that’s a stroke of genius: Both are familiar comic actors playing dramatic parts, but their faces and voices feel comforting. We know we’re in good hands. And their own relationship feels real, too, even as they worry about their daughter and become more vulnerable — like when, as an adult, you start to realize that your parents are real humans, too.
The Big Sick is the rare comedy that understands how to tackle heavy topics
Meanwhile, Kumail’s struggles to find his place in his own family — particularly when it comes to his mother — ring especially true for anyone who’s tried to find their way as an adult raised in a traditionalist home.
But it’s especially poignant to see that experience through Kumail’s eyes, as a Pakistani man whose American lifestyle clashes with the religion and cultural traditions he grew up with. Kumail tries to reconcile those clashes by simply compartmentalizing different aspects of his life — and realizes, eventually, that he can’t always pull it off. It’s not a struggle that’s unique to Muslims in America, but it’s also not one we see on screen very often.
Tackling all of those heavy topics in a comedy seems inadvisable, but because The Big Sick draws on real experiences, it works. We feel empathy for characters even when they seem intransigent or unreasonable, because we’ve come to see how they arrive at their conclusions.
When one of the young women (played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell) brought to dinner by Kumail’s parents finds out why he’s not interested in her, her reaction is the kind of irritation — and resignation — that anyone would feel in that situation. The anger Kumail’s mother feels over her son’s choices makes sense, given how his lifestyle looks to her. And Emily’s mother’s misguided last-minute bid to move her daughter to another hospital is both as frustrating and as understandable as it would be if it was your own mother.
Making secondary characters as vibrant as the leads helps make this happen. And in the end, The Big Sick reminds us that everyone’s struggles — and everyone’s joys — contain more layers than meets the eye.
The Big Sick opens in limited release on June 23 and in wide release on July 14.