Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Aktar, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant
Runtime: 1hr 59mins
“Do you see a future where we can be together?” That’s the question Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) asks her boyfriend Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) in The Big Sick’s pivotal scene, but it’s the question that also defines the whole movie — on two very different levels.
On the surface, Emily’s query is a reflection on romance that echoes inside every lover’s heart and forms the essential beats of every love story, be it comic or dramatic: Will this work? Can love transcend guilt, disappointment and fear?
In this particular case, based entirely on Kumail and Emily’s own story, it’s a case of personal guilt and parental disappointment. Kumail comes from a traditional Pakistani family that believes in arranged marriage. Falling in love with someone outside the faith and the community would mean exile. Can Kumail see a future with Emily, or will he surrender to the wishes of his family to keep them happy and be a good son?
Depending on the answer, it’s either rom-com or Romeo and Juliet. The Big Sick is a little of both because it takes the whole notion of “the future” to a different level. Shortly after Kumail answers Emily’s question, she gets sick. She’s diagnosed with an aggressive lung infection, put on intravenous antibiotics and medically sedated into a comatose state.
What begins as cross-racial romantic comedy takes a sudden turn into the very real world of life and death. The title prepared us for it, so you can’t really bitch about the deepening pool beneath you. Like the players in this all-too human comedy, the best you can do is tread water and stay afloat as the waves break in your face.
Director Michael Showalter makes it easy. He follows the floor pattern of a rom-com, a one-two-three-act waltz that subconsciously keeps us in the safe zone. So even as the tones grow darker, we’re still watching a guy trying to get his girl back while facing down his own insecurities.
Kumail Nanjiani’s performance can’t be undervalued, either, even though he is playing himself. The comic had to sell us every single piece of the puzzle to take us to a tender place. We had to buy his performance without feeling the sheen of revisionism. Most importantly, we had to buy him as the leading man in a romantic film — typically the terrain of Grants and Firths and Goslings.
That was the tougher challenge to pull off given the Hollywood box of expectation doesn’t feature a ton of South Asian leads. Yet, Nanjiani has all the subtle charms that unexpressed confidence can lend to any given scene. He’s shy, but he’s not a schlemiel. He’s goofy, but he’s sexy at the same time because he’s comfortable in his body.
We see what Emily sees, and that’s why this movie works as well as it does given how predictable it feels at times. Watching Nanjiani interact with the rest of the cast, from Holly Hunter as Emily’s Mom and Ray Romano as Emily’s Dad, to Aidy Bryant and other stand-up talents, offers a number of small surprises.
The dialogue isn’t generic, Friends-styled set-ups and punch-lines. Nor is it rom-com ultimatums and denouement. At times, it feels a little pretentious at the Nanjiani home in the suburbs. For the most part, however, it feels like real people talking about their lives.
What makes it worth turning into a movie is the amount of courage each character musters in his or her own way. Courage is what makes heroes, and heroes are the stuff of epics