Early in The Big Sick, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) sleeps with Emily, a woman he picked up after a finishing a stand-up set. It’s a first date, and Emily awkwardly attempts to leave after their coital encounter by calling an Uber to pick her up. Kumail’s phone rings, indicating that he will be driving her home. He does so; he in the driver seat, Emily in the back seat. In that moment, she’s not his friend, she’s a client.
It’s a funny moment in a movie that is full of laughs. The Big Sick, though, takes that joke in a weird direction that demonstrates how easily the film maneuvers through the various levels which it contains: it’s always funny, but it’s also three or four other things, too. In this case, Emily and Kumail continue to see each other, working through a fairly straight-forward romantic comedy setup. But even after they do, we still see him driving her: Kumail in the driver seat, Emily in back. They’re a couple, and he’s still her driver? I wondered whose idea that was. Did Kumail instinctively place her in the back? Or was it Emily, looking to keep her distance by maintaining the Uber driver–client relationship even after their courtship is fully underway? That question is unanswered, but seeing the early stages of a relationship thus unfold felt so realistic, so humanly awkward, that I kept hoping an opportunity to ask would arise.
It doesn’t, of course. Because this is a movie, and these are characters. Still, it’s a potent set-up for a lovely rom-com that really never arrives, since shortly thereafter Kumail and Emily will break up. And shortly after that breakup, Emily will be in a coma. At which point the film undertakes its second rom-com premise, in which the male lead begins a courtship with the parents of the woman he loves who might die at any time.
Standard rom-com stuff, you know.
There’s so much happening in The Big Sick that it’s easy to drop into romantic-comedy short-cuts when trying to describe the action. Boy meets girl, they fall for each other, they break up. But such short-cuts really don’t capture the experience here, because everything around that premise–girl goes into coma, Muslim tries to win over white girl’s family, in doing so boy loses his own family–injects The Big Sick with so much life and vitality and emotional realism that there can be no short-cutting.
Written by spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and directed by Michael Showalter, The Big Sick is a humane, family comedy for this moment in our national life. That’s cliche, but accurate, just like all the cliches of romantic-comedies are also, in one way or another, accurate. Families are crazy! Love is complicated! Prejudice is terrible! Tradition is restrictive! Tradition is powerful! Different cultures are different! Nanjiani and Gordon have the lived experience to power through these screen cliches, and with that experience they’ve crafted a screenplay that is sophisticated and profound. If the movie is a rom-com, and it is, it’s as elegant in its construction as you are likely to find in that particular genre.
What makes this scrambled version of rom-com so effective is the realism contained in the performances, particularly that of Nanjiani, who plays Kumail with the reserved, confused, conflicted persona that Nanjiani has mastered. The family dramas that unfold are wonderfully cast, but each of the stories revolve around, and depend upon, Kumail.
If you’re familiar with his stand-up, you know that Nanjiani’s act is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t demand laughs, but requests them humbly. That same appeal makes Kumail (the character) both likable as a lead in a romance, and sympathetic as a mid-30s man at odds with his family and lost in his career. When he breaks up with Emily, we understand why, and when he realizes–unfortunately after Emily is in a coma–that he made the wrong choice in leaving her, we root for him. When he inserts his own screwed-up personal life into the drama of his ex’s family affairs, we understand why Emily might just take him back. If she lives.
I was skeptical about The Big Sick, I admit, when I heard Michael Showalter was directing. But its clear he was the right director for this project. Showalter comes from Wet Hot American Summer, the massive ensemble dadaist / insane comedy of summer camp raunch. There are dozens of actors in this film, and Wet Hot likely served as crucial experience for The Big Sick. Zoe Kazan gets only half of the movie to shine, and does (Kazan is currently Hollywood’s most captivating almost star). Her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, embody the grief of parents facing a horrific loss, and embody the tragedy with sad, funny, and manic behavior of all kinds. Kumail’s parents, played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher, live the contradiction of a traditional Pakistani immigrant family raising Pakistani-American children.
Especially rewarding in the ensemble is the rotating cast of Pakistani women that Kumail’s mother brings to dinner in an effort to pair him in an arranged marriage. Each of these women is funny, and strange, and exasperated, in turn. And watching the Nanijani family dinner scenes, comprised of five Pakistani actors, plus a continuing additional showcase for women comedians of color, was exciting and fresh and felt alive. Then there are the other standup comics (Ady Bryant and Bo Burnham lead the stand-up brigade), the doctors and nurses, the hecklers, the fast-food drive-in operator. Showalter finds the heart of these people, finds Kumail’s connection to each, and therein finds a comic nugget to bring each to life. It’s remarkable, really.
If I’m starting to ramble a little in this review, please forgive me, and take it as a sign of the success of The Big Sick. Showalter and Nanjiani have so many balls in the air in the movie, and each seems to rotate so smoothly, that it’s easy to get buried in praise. So I won’t belabor the point: The Big Sick is one of the best movies of 2017.
-Christopher Zumski Finke