“The Big Sick” is one of those rare romantic comedies that achieves charm and sweetness without artifice or contrivance.
Yes, in the broadest sense, it fulfills expectations audiences might have for films of the genre.
But the film’s script and talent treat everything from the “meet-cute” to bumps most couples face at the start of relationships to some rather extraordinary and difficult trials with gravity and honesty. That approach, when combined with strong performances from the ensemble cast, results in a stand-out film.
What’s it about?
Writer/comedian Kumail Nanjiani ("Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates"), working with his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon, based the script for “The Big Sick” on their actual courtship. Nanjiani, naturally, plays Kumail, an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago who, after a show one night, hooks up with an audience member, grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan).
Despite their clear connection, neither Kumail nor Emily expect anything to develop beyond that first one-night stand. Emily makes it clear her priority is her degree, while Kumail knows the chaos it would cause with his traditional Pakistani parents should he not date and eventually marry a Pakistani girl they select for him.
But the two find themselves unable to not keep seeing each other, leading to a roller-coaster ride of a relationship fraught with complications. Just when those complications threaten to break their fragile connection, Emily gets very sick, needing round-the-clock care.
Enter Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who come to Chicago after they get the news. They know all about the ups and downs of their daughter’s relationship with Kumail and have formed their own opinions before even meeting him, which makes his presence at her bedside awkward, to say the least.
What happens next tests familial and cultural bonds on both sides, as Kumail and others drawn into the fray are all forced to re-examine preconceived notions and priorities in order to move toward what they hope will be a happier future.
More than just relationship comedy
One reason “The Big Sick” is as entertaining and engaging as it turns out to be is that Nanjiani and Gordon build into their script plenty of humor coming out of aspects of their lives apart from the complicated relationship at the heart of the story.
For example, on Kumail’s side, the film gets quite a bit of mileage out of his life as an aspiring stand-up comedian — the side job he’s forced to take, the opinions his family has about his chosen profession — and his peers, whose own talents for comedy range from "SNL ready" to "you really need to consider another career."
On Emily’s side, there are her parents, whose own marital tension leads to opportunities for both Hunter and Romano to deliver tremendous performances. Romano especially shines, given that his character at first comes off as not a whole lot different from what audiences have come to expect of him since his sit-com days, and he takes it in some unexpected directions.
Awards potential for Nanjiani?
But “The Big Sick” wouldn’t hold together without the quirky, understated performance of Nanjiani. He never fails to be relatable, even when the version of himself on screen isn’t exactly acting in the most forthright way.
His stellar performance here does bring forth an important question in terms of recognition for his work. Should anything be taken away from assessments of its quality because he’s essentially playing himself?
Yes, it’s a somewhat fictionalized version that audiences get in the film. But the Kumail on screen and what he experiences throughout “The Big Sick” come directly from what the real Nanjiani lived and experienced.
Should audiences ignore that and simply treat his performance here as we would his performance in an entirely fictional film story? Or do we take that into account, and does that in some way diminish what he accomplishes?
I chose the former approach and think Nanjiani’s work here is wholly deserving of any accolades it may receive without qualification. It remains to be seen whether others, including those in the business of nominating performers for awards during awards season, regard his work with any sort of caveats or reservations.
“The Big Sick” is already generating positive word of mouth thanks to its limited release in New York and Los Angeles, and for good reason.
Give the film and its love story a chance, and you’re likely to be raving about it to friends and family, too.
The Big Sick
Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher. Directed by Michael Showalter.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Rated R for language including some sexual references.