THE BIG SICK ½
2017, R, 119 mins.
Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail Nanjiani / Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner / Holly Hunter as Beth Gardner / Ray Romano as Terry Gardner / Adeel Akhtar as Naveed / Anupam Kher as Azmat / Kurt Braunohler as Chris / Bo Burnham as CJ / Aidy Bryant as Mary / Zenobia Shroff as Sharmeen / Vella Lovell as Khadija / Shenaz Treasurywala as Fatima / Celeste Arias as Denise
Directed by Michael Showalter / Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Someone asked me the other day what movie genre that I thought was on the verge of going on life support. I matter of factly responded with the romcom, seeing as nearly every storytelling convention and stale and overused troupe has been literally done to death over the years to the point of ad nauseam.
then along comes little proverbial diamonds in the rough like THE BIG SICK
to remind me that, yes, the genre can still be one of renewed vitality.
Equal parts dramatically moving and gut
bustingly amusing, THE BIG SICK not only imbues the romcom with a much
needed new prerogative that absconds away from routine formulas, but it
also manages to be a sly and perceptive commentary piece on race relations
for that last part, THE BIG SICK is based on the real life story of
comedian Kumail Nanjiani - whom also stars and co-writes here - who began
an interracial romance with future wife Emily V. Gordon...but during their
courtship she developed a rare and mysterious illness that forced her into
a medically induced coma for several weeks.
Nanjiani's almost impossible to believe story could have been
morphed into a tastelessly sensationalistic melodrama, but the stakes in the
film feel authentically personal (mostly because he's essentially
playing a version of himself) and the story manages to tackle what it
means for a Pakistani man to date a white woman when the respective
cultural differences of both sets of parents begins to rear their ugly
Rather democratically, Nanjiani's script (which he co-wrote with
his wife) is remarkably fair to all of the characters on both sides of the
ethnic fence, which allows for the story's cross cultural themes to
achieve a level of sobering truth that's not particularly germane to this
stars as...well...Kumail Nanjiani, a Chicago based stand-up comic that's
desperately trying to make a name for himself, often using his Pakistani
heritage as material ripe for satarization.
When not working on stage he drives Uber for a living and tries to
spend as much free time as he can with his staunchly Muslin parents (a
pitch perfect Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who make their dinners
remarkably awkward with their painfully forced attempts to arrange a
girlfriend and potential future wife for him.
Kamail plays the part of a good and obedient Muslim son to his
parents, but secretly he's more of an uncertain agnostic; when he goes
into his parent's basement to pray to placate their religious desires he
actually just plays videos games to pass the time.
evening changes Kumail forever when he's heckled by a cute audience
member, Emily (Zoe Kazan), during one of his gigs, after which time he
hooks back up with her at a local bar post-show.
The pair instantly hit it off, and after some discomfiting first
few dates they become an inseparable pair.
Unfortunately, the guilt of not telling his parents that - gasp! -
he's dating a non-Muslim white girl begins to weigh down heavily on
Kumail, which eventually leads to a huge rift forming between the pair.
A few weeks go by without either of them talking to each another, but then
Kumail receives an ominous phone call from one of Emily's friends to
inform him that she's been rushed to the hospital.
Upon arriving Kumail is told by the doctor that she has an inner
infection so large that she requires a medically induced coma to help
alleviate her symptoms and to allow for treatment.
When Emily's parents finally arrive, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter
and Ray Romano), they greet Kumail with instant suspicion.
Kumail decides to keep his chin up and stay by Emily's bedside for
as long as he can, even when treated harshly by her stressed and unruly
aspect that I admired about the very specifically titled THE BIG SICK is
that it never really follows the obligatory straight line trajectory of
Most examples of the genre spend a lion's share of their time
focusing on the core relationship of the two lead actors and all of the
intimate time they spend together.
THE BIG SICK is decidedly different in the sense that it's really
about the emotional distance between its lovers and how Kumail learns to
bond with his coma-induced girlfriend's beleaguered parents.
Kumail's on-screen and real life predicament certainly touches on
universal emotions we've all dealt with (everyone seeing it will
undoubtedly have had to deal with a loved one potentially dying in a
hospital), but what makes his experience so wholly unique is that it
compellingly delves into the inner struggles that he had with
identifying with his Pakistani Muslim heritage, not to mention a set of
WASP-y parents who initially form negative judgments regarding his
Very few romcoms that I can recall have focused on such a multitude
of themes with the sensitivity and depth as this film.
for instance, Emily's family, whom in a lesser film would have been
delegated to one-note racist caricatures for the purposes of cheap
dramatic and comedic payoffs.
Yet, the screenplay affords these character an atypical level of
complexity that I found refreshing.
Beth and Terry never emerge as truly hostile and vindictive people:
their animosity displayed towards Kumail is, at first, born out of their
mutual terrified insecurity regarding their daughter's well being.
Granted, Beth and Terry are also people that have obviously never
had any Muslim friends, as early and noble minded attempts by them to
reach out to and relate to Kumail's heritage are laughable failures
(during one painfully hilarious bit Terry makes the mistake of asking what
Kumail thought of 9/11).
However, as the narrative progresses and both the parents' and
Kumail's guards are lowered they both begin to legitimately enjoy each
other's company and show compassionate understanding.
The interplay between Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are the most
unexpectedly potent scenes in THE BIG SICK, and Hunter and Romano
specifically give such richly textured performances that carry a real
Both actors manage to convey anger, pathos, frustration, and
ultimately understanding in their very tricky roles.
then there's, of course, Nanjiani himself, who displays a deadpan comic
sarcasm that's positively infectious here in his very first lead role.
I think there are some genuine questions to be had as to whether or
not he's an actor of serious range and is capable of becoming a leading man in future
films, but he brings such soft spoken humility and low
key charm to his role that works small scale wonders for the film.
His on-screen partner in Kazan also has a crucial role here, even
though she's essentially out of the picture and unconscious throughout
half of the film.
She has the thorny task of making Emily somehow feel relatable and
endearing before she all but disappears in the narrative, thereby making
it feel plausible that Kumail would want to fight for her love.
THE BIG SICK assuredly benefits from the easy going chemistry that
Nanjiani and Kazan have during their few scenes together.
So many romcoms are filled with limitlessly and unattainably
attractive stars, but Nanjiani and Kazan come off as credible ordinary
people here trying to make a life together amidst terrible odds.
There are a few things that hold THE BIG SICK back from attaining true transcending genre greatness, like the fact that it's about 15-20 minutes too long for its own good (the film is produced by Judd Apatow, no stranger to making more than a few endurance testing romcoms recently). At two hours, THE BIG SICK feels a bit unnecessarily bloated. I also had a few other nagging questions, like how come the real life Emily doesn't figure as heavily into the film as Nanjiani does with his character, which seems odd. I also could have done with a few less scenes of Kumail's backstage stand-up comedy life with his fellow comedians, and a few less scenes involving them could have successfully trimmed off this film's fat. However, make no mistake about it, THE BIG SICK is undeniably a crowd pleasing romcom winner with a fascinating reality based story to tell. And the manner that it adeptly balances drama and comedy while touching on generational and cultural conflicts is kind of thanklessly on point. More impotently, it unequivocally proves that there's still reenergized life in this well worn genre...and that Nanjiani is a multi-talented on-screen dynamo to watch out for moving forward.