The Big Sick is a film defined by its specificity. In all its characters and sub-plots, screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon zero in on a unique experience, and yet the emotions that guide this experience are universal. Of course, this film is also a true story, with Nanjiani and Gordon basing the plot on their unconventional courtship. They find humor in awkward, sometimes intense situations, and yet The Big Sick is not a film that distinctly veers between comedy and drama. Jokes are weaved throughout the story, so part of its delight is laughing in a moment where the expected payoff is the exact opposite. I knew The Big Sick would be funny. I did not expect to hear the best 9/11 joke I’ve ever heard, in an gut-bustingly inappropriate moment.
Nanjiani plays a version of himself, an up-and-coming Chicago comedian who makes ends meet as an Uber driver. He meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) after he performs, and they strike up conversation. Emily insists she doesn’t want a relationship, and yet they soon find themselves grocery shopping together (a classic tell). While Emily’s reluctance toward romance comes from the usual failures, Kumail’s relates to his background: as a Pakistani immigrant, Kumail’s family expects him to partake in an arranged marriage. Caught between these two worlds, he half-asses it with Emily until she catches him in a lie, and they break up.
There is an early scene between Kumail and Emily that’s so good, I’m surprised I never saw it in a movie before. During one of their first dates, Kumail insists they watching one of his favorite movies together. Emily plays along, at least until Kumail intently watches her, gauging her reaction. He wants to make she gets it, that the movie means as much to her as it does to him, which of course sabotages the whole thing. In moments like this, the script and Michael Showalter’s direction are more about behavior than any big punch line or gag. There is a steady stream of laughs in The Big Sick, but there is no comic escalation.
Shortly after Emily and Kumail break up, he receives a surprising late night call: Emily is in the hospital, and she needs someone to look after her. Kumail agrees, and shortly afterward he makes an intense choice. He pretends to be her husband, just so he can authorize the doctors to put her in a medically induced coma. Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Roy Romano) arrive shortly afterward, and this is where the film finds its heart. Beth and Terry know exactly how Kumail broke Emily’s heart, and he still keeps coming to the hospital anyway, so the film follows the unlikely trio as they build affection, even friendship.
This is a weird romantic comedy, and not just because one of its leads is in coma. While You Were Sleeping did something similar, and it wasn’t weird at all. The characters in The Big Sick withhold feelings and information from each other in plausible ways, not in ways that are convenient for the plot. Kumail does not set out to prove himself to Beth and Terry; he demures to their choices, and then they find themselves in a situation where Beth ends up defending Kumail, anyway. Grief and uncertainty inform many of the jokes during this period, and part of the awkward hilarity is seeing which jokes land, and which should never have been said.
Kumail’s family does not have as much screen time as Beth’s, and yet they’re an integral part of the story. Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher play his long-suffering parents, and the script is respectful enough not to condemn arranged marriage outright. There is a big confrontation between Kumail and his parents – full of confessions and things and harsh ultimatums – and it’s to Nanjiani and Gordon’s credit that no one is quite the villain. Everyone here is good-natured, more or less, so the tension is over whether everyone, including Emily, can rise to the occasion. Drama rarely achieves such nuance, and The Big Sick eases us into it with comedy’s restorative qualities.
Nanjiani and Gordon have been married for about ten years, so of course their film takes some liberties. Uber wasn’t around during their first months together, for one thing, and the film’s ending is more plausible than what actually happened to them. Still, this is a gorgeously understated comedy, with Holly Hunter as the real stand-out (this film recalls her role in Broadcast News, since both Hunter performances are flinty, intelligent, and warm). Judd Apatow produced this film, and it includes his trademark of being longer, even more languid, than the typical comedy. That can be a bad thing, but it’s an asset to The Big Sick. Here is a film that has the pace and rhythm of real life, minus all the ugliness. It is not a fantasy; instead, it feels like Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon invited us to share their rose-colored glasses.