See you’ve caught me in a coma.
Should The Big Sick be described as a romantic comedy? As a family drama? As a topical story? As a timeless story? The answer is yes across the board, since you can use any of those terms and you’d be correct. But more importantly, it’s a terrific, heartfelt and continually funny movie that is easily one of the best films so far this year.
Kumail Nanjiani stars as Kumail (hey!), a Chicago-based standup comic who begins dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student he meets at one of his shows. Emily keeps saying she doesn’t have time for a relationship, but keeps making excuses to see Kumail, and the two kindred spirits seem destined for each other. However, Kumail’s traditional Pakistani Muslim family don’t even know Emily exists, and him keeping that secret ends up causing a big rift between the two of them.
To describe what happens next would be, for some, going into spoilery territory I suppose, so here’s your pseudo-warning. Except it’s not only revealed in the trailers for the film, its real life inspiration makes it crucial to the story.
After they break up, Emily has a medical emergency and Kumail, summoned by her friend, races to her side. What’s happening is truly dangerous and scary, resulting in Emily being put in a medically-induced coma. And that’s when her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), arrive, leading to Kumail meeting them under very bizarre circumstances – and having to navigate now spending time with two people who know why their daughter was so angry at him, and aren’t exactly excited he’s there.
The Big Sick is written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon (who co-created The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail with Nanjiani) and not shockingly, given their names vs. the character names, the film is based on their real life story. While there have been some alterations to how things occurred in real life (the couple were not broken up when she went into her coma) most of the big events are true. That being the case, it’s easy to guess that – unless they decided to add a very macabre twist to their own love story – Emily will survive the film and she and Kumail will end up together. But it is indeed all about the journey, and The Big Sick is a wonderful one.
If this were “just” a romantic comedy, it would be a strong one. Nanjiani and Kazan are an absolutely winning pair, and it’s very easy to invest in wanting them together. Kazan is incredibly endearing here, which is crucial, because we need to feel the weight of her being in the coma and the potential of losing her forever. Nanjiani meanwhile is his usual funny, likable self, while also adeptly portraying a guy who’s put up some huge walls in his life, hiding from his family how he truly feels about their traditions, and never putting a stop to the parade of women his mother arranges for him to meet, in an attempt to make the right match.
However, the coma storyline – and how Kumail then has an entirely different sort of relationship begin to grow with Emily’s parents – is what really help make this film stand out. Beth is openly hostile towards Kumail at first, while the low-key Terry is friendlier, but what evolves is one of the best “meet the parents” stories possible. Romano and Hunter are both perfect in these roles and each have key moments with Kumail that stand out and deftly depict how you can connect with someone you might not expect to.
What’s important to stress though is that The Big Sick never stops being a comedy. Even in the darkest and most dire of moments, in the film – as is the case in life – humor can still stand out and get you through. Kumail, Beth and Terry all have some huge issues to work out for themselves and with each other, and they’re all worried about losing Emily, and yet it’s really funny watching how that all plays out, even as their issues are not glossed over or pushed to the side. From a conversation between Kumail and Terry about what game that could play to pass the time, to Beth’s reaction to a heckler at Kumail’s standup show, there are so many great, memorable, and frequently hysterical scenes here.
And yes, the film feels timely, in the way that it’s perhaps inevitable that any story focused on a Pakistani Muslim living in America will right now, as we do see examples of the casual racism Kumail faces. This is all done in an appropriately matter of fact way – it never feels like we are being given An Important Message, but rather seeing a reflection of what life can sometimes be like for Nanjiani and those who look like him, all depicted with his trademark wit. And his struggles to go down a different path from his family is easy to connect to, regardless of your background, for anyone who can empathize with not wanting to follow the exact set of rules given to them.
Nanjiani and Graves fully immerse you in the world you’ve created, and do a commendable job of making the supporting, and even peripheral, characters feel fully formed. Kumail’s parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) may have strict rules they live by, but they clearly love their son – and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) has followed those rules more than Kumail wishes to, yet can be a bit more outwardly sympathetic to Kumail’s wish to find his own path. Vella Lovell meanwhile has a wonderful scene as one of the would-be brides Kumail’s mother has set him up with, while making sure these women aren’t treated as simply comic fodder, as she makes some excellent points about the situation Kumail has put her in.
Director Michael Showalter is known, as both a director and writer, for working on more heightened, outwardly “wacky” projects for much of his career, including co-writing Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together. With The Big Sick though, he proves he’s very capable of working in much more grounded terrain, with true bigger emotional stakes, while still delivering a well-paced, consistently funny film, filled with strong performances.
The Big Sick is now in select theaters and expands nationwide July 14.