‘The Big Sick’ is a traditional romantic comedy in the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ vein, where two characters are kept apart from their destiny together by their families. Here, Kumail and Emily cannot seem to get past Kumail’s traditional Pakistani family, who want to set him up with any of several young Pakistani women, and Emily’s life-threateningly illness. Rather astonishingly, it is based on the real-life courtship of co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and his now wife Emily V. Gordon. More astonishingly, it is an excellent film, laden with big laughs, strong performances and an intensely honest emotional core.
Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) lives in Chicago, working as an Uber driver and performing regularly at comedy nights in the pursuit of his big break. He is one of several comedians at the same club looking for their breakthrough, represented by a call-up to the Montreal Comedy Festival. Though he lives out of home, he regularly returns to have dinner with his Muslim family, mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), father Azmat (Anupam Kher), brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasury). When he tells them that he is going downstairs to pray, Kumail uses the time to watch videos on his phone. His mother uses the dinners as an opportunity to introduce Kumail to a bevy of young Pakistani Muslim women, to whom he could be arranged to wed. They arrive bearing a headshot for his consideration and a handful of facts about Kumail that his mother has already told them. One prospect that has studied up on Kumail’s favourite show, ‘The X-Files’, is especially funny. He collects their headshots in a cigar box but has no intention of settling down any time soon.
After a successful show, Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) in a bar. Their witty banter develops quickly, and she spends the night at his apartment. As an aspiring therapist and current Masters student, Emily really doesn’t have the time to be dating anyone, so they agree not to see one another. Nevertheless, the keep returning to Kumail’s apartment, and before they know it, they’re dating. Zoe Kazan, an actress that has been bubbling away in indie films for years now, delivers an exceptional performance. Her Emily warm and funny, and her vulnerability in falling for Kumail is deeply felt and portrayed on the screen.
When Emily discovers Kumail’s cigar box of women, it sparks a fiery argument about Kumail’s commitment to his family, an admirable trait but one that precludes their future together. They break up, but weeks later, when Emily faints during class and is admitted to hospital, Kumail is called by one of her friends to be by her side. Her illness, an aggressive internal infection, mandates that she be placed in a medically-induced coma, so Kumail signs the necessary forms allowing the doctors to proceed. Only then does he remember to contact her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who immediately travel up from North Carolina. Emily had told Beth and Terry about Kumail and their breakup, so the pair are understandably standoffish despite his attempts to ingratiate himself to them. What follows is a layered journey, as the trio slowly learn to trust each through the crash course of meeting the in-laws, Emily fights her illness through the coma, and Kumail juggles his burgeoning comedy career alongside increasing pressure from his family, who know nothing about the existence of Emily.
Though Nanjiani is a decent actor, it is as a writer that he truly shines. Writing with his wife, the pair have found new and fascinating twists on the timeworn genre. As a comedy, it’s outstanding, with near constant laughs that riff on race, religion, love and family. Although illness can be a difficult subject for comedy, some of the biggest laughs land after Emily has gone under – Kumail using a comatose Emily’s thumbprint to unlock her phone stands out. I cannot imagine that writing this could have been easy for Nanjiani and Gordon, to put their courtship under such honest and raw scrutiny, but they have done a terrific job. You do feel the duration of the film, but its length is earned by the gravity of their shared experiences.
There’s not a single dud note in the supporting cast. Romano and Hunter are both predictably excellent, and the way the pair sell their begrudging affection for Kumail during Emily’s illness, as well as their troubled relationship with one another, propels that section of the film. Kumail’s family is excellently cast, and their weekly dinners are a wonderful examination of the migrant experience in contemporary America. Bo Burnham also stands out as CJ, an acerbic fellow comedian on the Chicago scene.
These elements are winningly shepherded by director Michael Showalter, who steers clear of the overwhelming indie quirks that threatened his previous effort, ‘My Name is Doris’. He delivers a film that is heartfelt and cathartic, and ultimately reminds the audience why the rom-com was such a successful staple in decades gone by. ‘The Big Sick’ is a big deal, signalling the arrival of some impressive writing talents and reintroducing the world to its cast’s acting chops. Worth seeing.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting