It may help that The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter, who adeptly balanced laugh-out-loud humor and sheer awkwardness in his last film Hello, My Name Is Doris. Nanjiani and Gordon’s story is a distressing one: Not long after they met and started dating, Emily (played in the movie by Zoe Kazan) mysteriously fell ill and was put in a medically induced coma. Kumail, already wrestling with pressure from his parents to marry a Pakistani girl, was suddenly forced into the most intimate setting imaginable—Emily’s hospital bedside, alongs with her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
It’s the kind of holy-cow premise that only works for a movie if it’s true. Nanjiani and Gordon’s script works by hugging to specific details, like a stand-up show Kumail has to perform in front of Emily’s parents mere days after meeting her, or the box of photos of potential brides, provided by his parents, that Kumail can’t seem to throw away. The film devotes ample time to setting up Emily as a character and making her connection to Kumail feel real, if tenuous, due to his fears of cultural disconnect. As such, The Big Sick does have the kind of lengthy running time (124 minutes) common of a Judd Apatow-produced movie, but with none of the drag, mostly because it’s cramming in more necessary story beats instead of more meandering improv.
Showalter isn’t trying to disrupt the rom-com form. The Big Sick resembles three great, swoony sitcoms mashed together: It’s a typical meet-cute (between Kumail and Emily), a nuanced generation-gap story (between Kumail and his parents), and, well, an extremely atypical meet-cute (between Kumail and Emily’s parents). The film bounces between each sub-genre with ease, an especially impressive feat given the potential whiplash one could get jumping between Kumail’s overbearing parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and a chaotic hospital room. Showalter’s assurance is reminiscent of James L. Brooks, which is about the highest rom-com compliment I can grant.
Emily’s parents, well aware of Kumail’s unease at settling down with a white, non-Muslim woman, initially dismiss him; he wins them over less with his charm than with his big-heartedness, a quality this movie possesses in spades. Emily’s mom, Beth, is one of Holly Hunter’s best roles in years; she’s a pint-sized emotional bruiser who makes her first major impression trying to shut down one of Kumail’s hecklers at a stand-up show. Emily’s Dad, Terry, is laced with all of Romano’s lovable self-consciousness and anxiety. A subplot revolving around their own marital difficulties seems tacked-on at first, but becomes crucial to Kumail as he navigates his own mistakes in his courtship with Emily.
It’s wonderful to see a movie in this genre that makes its Muslim American characters three-dimensional people. But most of all, The Big Sick stands out for its huge generosity of spirit and its reliance on human relationships, rather than ridiculous set-pieces, high-concept plot twists, or outsized villains, to drive its story forward. The recent death of the American rom-com has been much remarked upon, but it only takes one great film to zap it back into life. The Big Sick just might be that film.