**** out of ****
(for strong language including some sexual references)
Released: June 23, 2017 limited; July 14 expands
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler
It’s rare to have a romantic comedy barrel into theaters aboard the kind of hype train that The Big Sick arrived on. Given the genre’s dearth of quality this millennium (especially following the 1990s Golden Age), it’s easy to forgive a bit of gushing hyperbole. Except in this case, the hype is not overstated. It’s real.
This Sundance Film Festival sensation is not only the best romantic comedy in years – and probably of the young century – but it will be impossible to talk about The Best Films of 2017 without having The Big Sick squarely at the heart of that conversation.
The intriguing hook here is three-fold: the guy of the “meet cute” is Pakistani, the woman he meets then falls into a coma about halfway through, and it’s all based on the real love story of its two screenwriters. One of them, Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley), also stars.
These idiosyncratic elements certainly make the film something special in its own right, but here’s what renders The Big Sick as truly distinct: the characters are so rich, so honest, and so true that they’d stand out even without the Pakistani heritage or the Arranged Marriage curveball that comes along with it. The couple’s spark, and their romance, is so authentic and alive that it’d be unique even without the coma blindside.
In short, The Big Sick works on every conceivable level (and works in every conceivable trope) that you’d want from a romantic comedy, but then it goes somewhere further. By the end, it actually touches on ideas that are not only timely, but wise and challenging.
Set in Chicago, Nanjiani keeps his first name in this autobiographically fictionalized version of himself, as does the character of Emily, played here by Zoe Kazan in a deeply emotional performance that ranges from endearing to searing. After Emily playfully heckles Kumail during one of his standup routines, the two strike an instant spark and become blissfully obsessed with each other in short order.
Looming over their soulmate kismet is the fact that Kumail’s parents, as first generation immigrants, expect him to marry within their Muslim faith and to a fellow Pakistani. The prospects for an arranged marriage are presented to Kumail via regularly scheduled dinners that serve as auditions. Kumail goes through these motions with no intention to follow through, but he doesn’t have the guts to tell either his family or Emily about where he stands, let alone tell them about each other.
This tightrope scenario is further complicated when an unknown sickness hospitalizes Emily, requiring her to be sedated in an induced coma. Her North Carolinian parents (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano) fly in for support, but friction and suspicions between them and Kumail compound the circumstances.
As serious as all of that sounds (and it is), a plot description inaccurately undercuts how funny this movie actually is. It’s hilarious throughout, from the early stages of Kumail and Emily’s romance to the niche world of standup comedy and its backstage subculture (real-life comic Bo Burnham and SNL’s Aidy Bryant are standouts here).
The chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan is so vibrant, so effortless and organic, with flirting and banter so natural that it’s difficult to imagine the chemistry between the real Kumail and Emily being any more potent. Nanjiani and Kazan capture whatever he and his wife have, like lightning in a bottle.
Given how personal this story is for the screenwriters and its lead actor, it’d be easy to assume that director Michael Showalter is merely a facilitator. That assumption would be wrong, and grossly unfair. On the contrary, between this and his previous Sally Field indie Hello, My Name is Doris, Showalter has confidently graduated from sketch comedy roots to become a legitimate filmmaker, one with an insightful touch that elevates even top tier talent, bringing out the best of seasoned A-listers.
As circumstances turn, and the two leads bare their hearts and souls – along with Hunter and Romano – the screenplay still manages to deftly maintain its comedic wit, including the first credible 9/11 joke you’ve ever heard, earning the film’s biggest laugh (which is saying something). The humor, however, is not dark or gallows; it’s clever and appropriate, which is an even bigger feat.
And yet the dramatic stakes remain real, not just in regard to Emily’s health crisis but to the relationship barriers that must be confronted, regardless of her outcome. It’s in this that The Big Sick becomes more than a first rate Rom-Com. It’s honest and raw about how tragic events bring clarity to things we overcomplicate.
It’s also about Kumail becoming a man, growing a spine, acting like a man, and how life-and-death circumstances require maturation (not to mention wishing we’d had that maturity before life forced it upon us). Exercising character and integrity doesn’t instantly become easier, but it does become necessary. A man doesn’t avoid or run from these necessary decisions; he makes them, with resolve but also humility. For Kumail, the journey becomes unexpectedly formative.
It’s highly commendable too, and increasingly rare, that religious faith and tradition are not marginalized. They’re genuinely respected, as are their adherents. This is where The Big Sick offers up its timely wisdom.
Each of us holds true to certain values and, in good conscience, cannot bend from certain convictions. What Kumail’s, Emily’s, and their families’ story beautifully conveys is that, gasp, there’s nothing wrong with that. Being devout and pious doesn’t make someone inherently backwards or bigoted. Here’s what’s important: when we reach an intransigent impasse with the people we love, we keep loving each other anyway.
Love may not conquer all, but it does keep us united. That’s what The Big Sick is really about. In our toxically divisive times, I can’t imagine a more relevant or unifying virtue than that.