It has become a trope for characters in films and television shows to want their lives to play out like romantic comedies (i.e. Mindy on The Mindy Project). It is less common for someone to turn their own love story into a romantic comedy, especially when the result is sweet, hilarious and genuinely reflective on issues around family, culture and self-discovery. In The Big Sick, Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani achieve all of the above.
The Big Sick tells the love story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan), who meet at a comedy club after Kumail does a stand-up set that Emily “woohoos” during. At first, their encounter is intended to be just a one-night stand. Emily is doing her graduate work in psychology and is not interested in seriously dating. Their connection is immediate, however, and despite their resistance, the pair end up in a serious relationship. The relationship hits the rocks, however, when Emily discovers a cigar box full of photos of Pakistani women in Kumail’s room and he confesses that his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are trying to arrange a marriage for him.
Kumail’s brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) has also warned him that if he refuses to be a good Muslim and marry a Pakistani girl, his parents will kick him out of the family. Emily is hurt that Kumail’s family doesn’t even know about her, and Kumail feels torn between the life he wants and the family he loves. Not long after the couple breaks up, Emily’s friend calls and asks Kumail to go to the hospital. Emily is sick with a mysterious infection and has to be put into a medically-induced coma while the doctors come up with a treatment plan. While at the hospital, Kumail develops a relationship with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) that puts Kumail’s family struggles and love for Emily into a bigger perspective.
Although classed as a romantic comedy, The Big Sick is really a romantic dramedy. It has many serious moments that give the story some weight and real stakes while making the funny moments even funnier. On one hand, Kumail’s story is a classic narrative about the tension between immigrant parents and their “Americanized” children, but the layering of three love stories together keeps the narrative fresh and really rich with character nuance. At the heart of the film is the romance between Kumail and Emily, but because Emily is in a coma for about half of the movie, Kumail ends up learning from the love story of Emily’s parents, who are going through a hard time of their own. The chemistry between Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kumail makes this part of the narrative hilarious and beautiful. They work as a comedic trio, but the audience also witnesses them becoming an awkward little family unit with Kumail in the role of son and peacekeeper. The complexities of that marriage add depth to what Kumail feels about his own complicated position. In contrast to that love match, Kumail’s parents’ and brother’s happy arranged marriages keep the tension from being a binary between a good and a bad choice for Kumail. The added emotional turmoil of the women his parents are trying to match him with creates a layered portrait.
The Big Sick is also very funny. I laughed aloud a lot. Some of the humor comes from Kumail’s comedian friends, Mary (Aidy Bryant), CJ (Bo Burnham), and Chris (KurtBraunohler), but a lot of it comes from the awkward interactions Kumail has while trying to figure out his life, and the ways he lashes out from his frustration and grief. For example, there is a scene in which he rages out at a drive-thru worker that is hilariously constructed and would be funny on its own, but is especially comic in the context of the story. I felt bad for both Kumail and the poor worker, but laughed hard anyway.
There are moments in The Big Sick when the editing was pretty choppy, one time even leading to audio carrying over a transition just enough that I was momentarily confused. It is well acted, complex, funny and incredibly well-written however. It is a sweet love story that has enough depth to avoid being saccharine or sappy. I rate it 4.5/5 stars.
The Big Sick was written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani and directed by Michael Showalter. It runs 120 minutes and is rated R for language including some sexual references.
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