Watching The Big Sick is like fondly reconnecting with an old friend you didn’t know you missed. The general beats of the film are familiar and warm; I quickly realized it had been a long time since I’d seen a romantic comedy about people who are generally supportive of each other, one free of violent subplots about kidnapping or murder, or many of the stoned, bro-y digressions typical of the last decade. The film has a tremendous asset on its hands, in that it follows the remarkable real-life story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon (who wrote the movie together), but it’s also special for being such a sincere example of the genre.
Kumail (Nanjiani plays himself) is a struggling stand-up comic living in Chicago—but wait, please, don’t click away! This is not the latest in the never-ending, navel-gazing trend of stories about struggling to make your way in the cutthroat world of comedy. The Big Sick, wisely, lets Kumail’s career serve only as a charming backdrop, rather than an emotional core. It’s neither a “struggling comic” film nor a straightforward romance, but somehow ends up being a terrific example of both, mixing in a healthy soupçon of culture clash and navigating its relationships with grace.
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.