In The Big Sick, comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays comedian Kumail Nanjiani. He works the Chicago comedy club scene despite his parents’ wishes for him to become a lawyer or a doctor. Kumail has his own path to follow, differing with his parents’ Pakistani cultural beliefs on arranged marriages and Muslim prayer practices.
However, he still lies to them in order to keep them happy, knowing that the possibility of being disowned from the family is all too real if he chooses to stray too far from these cultural practices. He appeases his parents every night when he comes to their house for dinner: pretending to pray in the basement while playing video games on his phone and smiling awkwardly through conversations with various female suitors that “drop in” for dinner.
Meanwhile, Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan, based on the real life Emily Gordon, co-author of the film’s script and Nanjiani’s wife) after she heckles him innocently at one of his shows. They meet-cute and proceed to go down the likely path of any rom-com couple: fits and starts, but mostly just awkward cuteness as their romance blossoms.
Until Emily finds out about Kumail’s need to consent to an arranged marriage in order to keep his relationship with his family, which ends their relationship…
…Until Kumail finds out that Emily, suffering from a rare infection, has to be put into a medically-induced coma if there is going to be any hope of saving her life.
The Big Sick is, quite effortlessly, one of the best movies of 2017. Through playing into the rom-com tropes and basic narrative formula, it offers something much more substantial than those tropes and that formula generally allow for.
The semi-autobiographical nature of the work is visible, which helps in this regard. There is a realism in the depth of human connection between Kumail and Emily that is indicative of something that transcends fiction. While this depth is really only seen in fleeting instances, it is sold quite well by Nanjiani and Kazan.
Kazan, in particular, steals essentially every scene that her character is conscious for. There is a scary ease by which her character’s emotional trajectory—in the first act of the film, most noticeably—is heartbreaking. A scene in which she is confronted with the realization of Kumail’s arranged marriage future is one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
While the connection between the two leads is what drives the narrative of the film, most of the emotional heft of the film comes from the much more nuanced relationship between Emily’s parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Both of these actors provide brutally real performances that showcase a marriage rife with innumerable minute complexities.
Rounding out the phenomenal cast are Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher, who play Kumail’s parents. While they at first come off as the butt of a joke, the silly traditionalist parents who don’t understand the reality of their son’s situation, by the end of the film they both show moments of internal conflict that are beautifully striking and utterly fascinating.
Perhaps the weakest of the cast is Nanjiani himself, which can prove problematic in a movie that centers on him. While he is greatly overshadowed by his fellow cast members, his comedy chops keep him from becoming an eyesore on the tapestry of performances on display in the film.
A film, particularly a romantic comedy film, that can balance genuine humor with a continual emotional density is rare. The trick and the challenge is to imbue both sides of the coin with undeniable humanity.
The humanity in The Big Sick may not be undeniable. Not quite. But the film is a tonally pitch perfect comedy about the lengths of commitment and the misunderstandings that come with an international cultural identity.
The Big Sick is brimming with soul and emotional intensity. Not to mention enough comedy to pace the film wonderfully. It may drop in on the overtly familiar in the story department, but its heartfelt attitude and clean wit make it all feel new again.
The Big Sick: A
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)