It’s a shame that the term “rom-com” has taken on such a negative connotation nowadays, because it can sometimes turn away audiences from excellent, heartwarming films that defy genre cliches. While back in the day, the term called to mind such classics as Four Weddings and a Funeral or Jerry Maguire (both Best Picture nominees), people now tend to associate the term with schlock Kate Hudson or Jennifer Lopez movies that scarcely earn a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. So while it may not be a high bar to clear, The Big Sick is undeniably one of the best, if not the best, rom-coms of the last decade, and certainly the best rom-com where one of the two leads is in a coma for half the film.
The Big Sick is based on the real life love story of its co-writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Kumail (played by himself) is a struggling stand-up comedian in Chicago. After one of his gigs, he meets and flirts with audience member Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). After some initial reservations about pursuing a relationship (she’s a busy grad student and his parents insist on an arranged marriage (although Kumail does not tell Emily this)), they begin seeing each other on a regular basis, and we’re soon treated to a “look-at-how-in-love-our-protagonists-are” montage. Although based on how earlier in the film’s run-time this montage is, you know they aren’t safe yet. Eventually Emily finds out about Kumail’s arranged marriage predicament and the fact the he hasn’t told his parents he’s seeing her. When she asks him if they have a future together and he is unsure, she breaks things off. Kumail is heartbroken and that seems like the end of the couple until he finds out Emily is sick and has been taken to the hospital. Because her parents are out of state, Kumail must sign off on the decision to place Emily in a medically-induced coma. Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive, and although they aren’t thrilled to see Kumail, the three must band together to keep the situation under control.
Although one of the main selling points of the film’s uniqueness was the aforementioned fact that it’s a love story where one half of the couple is in a coma, it’s also about so much more than that. Kuamil’s relationship with his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenboia Shroff) is frequently tested due to their insistence that he become a lawyer and marry a Pakistani girl. In addition to his taboo romance with Emily, he’s also having a crisis of faith, and hasn’t prayed in years. Director Michael Showalter manages to blend Kumail’s relationships with Emily, her parents, and his parents seamlessly, and despite the movie having both comedic and dramatic elements, it never once feels like there’s a jarring tonal shift. While it may seem redundant to say this about a movie based on a true story, The Big Sick feels remarkably authentic.
In addition to Showalter’s capable direction, this authenticity is brought about by the writers: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. “True story” movies are a dime a dozen nowadays, but it is rare to see one written by and starring the subject of the film, especially considering how unglamorous the story is. It’s based on what was probably the most intense and scary experience of their lives, and it took courage for the two of them to bare that vulnerability on screen for the public to see. This was especially risky given that it’s the couple’s most high-profile film project to date (Nanjiani stars in HBO’s Silicon Valley but this is sure to be his breakout film role). Nanjiani and Gordon could’ve easily tried to revise history, but they don’t take the easy route. Just as we see their triumphs play out onscreen, we also see their mistakes. Kumail and Emily are both written as flawed people, with both of them making mistakes in the relationship, and this helps to add to the film’s aforementioned authenticity. And of course, the film is one of the most hilarious comedies I’ve seen in a while. Kumail and Emily have a great banter (“We haven’t even had sex again yet.” “Sorry, I only have sex with a guy once on the first date.”), and the film isn’t afraid to mine controversial topics for comedy. A conversation between Nanjiani and Romano about 9/11 garnered some of the biggest laughs from the audience despite the risk inherent in the joke.
While he probably has the least experience of the central quartet, Nanjiani seems at ease in his first lead film role. Some may say it’s easy because he’s essentially playing himself, but if anything, that’s more of a credit to his performance. He could’ve easily gone on autopilot, but he hits the dramatic scenes just as well as the comedic ones (a scene set in a fast-food rive-thru line is a particular highlight). He also succeeds in playing himself as he was then, not as he is now. His stand-up in the movie is a bit less polished than one might expect of the current Nanjiani. Zoe Kazan (a screenwriter herself, though not on this film) makes a charming Emily, and from her introduction, it’s easy to see why Kumail would fall for her. She’s smart, charming, funny, and (as an actress and a character) she matches Kumail tit for tat. Because of the trailers, we know that eventually Emily will end up in a coma, and while a lesser film would’ve caused audiences to be waiting around for that turning point, Nanjiani and Kazan’s excellent chemistry means that we relish the first third of the film where we see their relationship unfold.
Giving memorable supporting turns are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents. It’s somewhat surprising to see an actress of Hunter’s acclaim (1 Oscar win out of 4 nominations) in such a small-scale film, but her performance in this film has already led to outside speculation of a 5th. Romano, mostly known as a sitcom star, holds his own against Hunter in what is probably his most dramatic role to date. The two make an amusing double act, and while Romano towers over Hunter by a foot, her character of Beth is easily the more in-control of the two. Hunter turns in great work with her portrayal of this fierce woman who will do whatever it takes to help her daughter, and it’s especially interesting once we see her lighter side come out as she gradually bonds with Kumail. Romano’s Terry, meanwhile, is more laid-back. He goes along with the doctors, warms to Kumail first, etc. Terry’s late-in-the-game admission to Kumail about his crumbling marriage is responsible for one of the film’s standout scenes, and this third-act subplot does not feel forced or tacked-on whatsoever. Kumail’s parents also turn in great work despite having less screentime, and their clash with Kumail over honoring his culture brings up important questions about what it means to be an immigrant in America. Bo Burnham, SNL’s Aidy Bryant, and comedian Kurt Braunohler are all in good form as Kumail’s fellow club comedians, with Burnham in particular having quite a few funny jabs.
In conclusion, I urge you to see this heartfelt and hilarious film. It’s currently in limited release, but when it hits wide release, it needs all the viewership it can get. It’s a tough film to categorize and it may turn away some audience members, but if you want to see more original and innovative films in wide release platforms, it’s important to support this indie gem. Hopefully it leads to more work from the on-the-rise talents of Nanjiani and Gordon.