The Big Sick
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
The Big Sick is a romantic comedy, a relationship drama and a family drama. It is the story of a Pakistani-American struggling to balance his values with his family’s values and the impact on his life when the woman he loves is put into a medically induced coma. It is very well written, well-acted, touching and very, very funny.
The film stars Pakistani stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (from HBO’s terrific Silicon Valley) as a struggling Pakistani stand-up comedian named Kumail Nanjiani. The film is based on the beginnings of his relationship with his now wife, Emily V. Gordon (who is played in the film by a charming Zoe Kazan). They co-wrote the film together which probably explains why, even though Nanjiani is the protagonist, the film gives equal weight to the emotions experienced by Emily and her worried parents, Beth and Terry (played with great skill by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
Kumail and Emily meet-cute during one of his stand-up performances and hit it off immediately. They begin to date, but what Kumail hasn’t told Emily is that his parents are very traditional and expect him to marry a Pakistani woman through an arranged marriage. This sets up a conflict of cultures which the story has just arrived at when Emily comes down with a serious infection and is placed in a medically induced coma. This is when her parents enter into the story and Kumail must decide what is truly important to him.
The Big Sick (118 minutes before the (very short) end credits) is interesting in the way it explores three different worlds through the life of its protagonist. The first is the world of Pakistani-American families. The second is the world of stand-up comedy. And the third contains the helplessness of those who have a loved one in a coma. Kumail convincingly traverses all three of these settings as he tries to figure out what kind of person he is.
His relationship with his family is funny at times and always handled with respect. Though Kumail doesn’t follow the same traditions as his parents, the film never mocks them or makes fun of them. They may have a very specific idea of how their children should live their lives, but that does not make them bad parents. Though they provide most of the film’s conflict, they are not villains. They love Kumail; they just do not understand how they could have raised a child so different from themselves.
The comedy club scenes feel honest and true to what that kind of life is like (which makes sense since Nanjiani and several of his co-stars have worked as stand-up comics), but it is the least developed aspect of the film. Granted, the life of a stand-up comedian has been explored in much more detail in other recent films and television series and this movie isn’t really about Kumail trying to make it as a comedian. It isn’t that important to the film. Because of this, its lack of depth never becomes a problem for the film as a whole.
The hospital scenes are very effective. They are probably the most important scenes in the film because they introduce Emily’s parents into the story and provide Kumail with his dramatic arc. Hunter and Romano are fantastic in their scenes. They both do a wonderful job balancing the different tones they have been asked to play. Even though the film is a comedy about Kumail’s emotional journey, it never trivializes what Beth and Terry (and Emily) are going through. They really anchor the film and add depth to it which helps make it more than merely a successful romantic comedy.
I don’t want to turn people off by making The Big Sick sound like some tear-jerking melodrama, so let me once again mention how funny the film is. Nanjiani, Gordon and director Michael Showalter manage to get laughs all throughout the film, without ever undermining the more dramatic material. Their film is hilarious while also being surprisingly moving and thought-provoking. The Big Sick is not only one of the funniest movies of the year, it is also one of the best movies of the year.
Note: I saw a special screening of the film titled The Big(ger) Sick: Stick Around for More Laughs. After the film, there was approximately ten minutes of bonus footage from "The Big Sick Comedy Tour" that they used to promote the film. It features clips of some of the people who worked on the film (such as Kumail Nanjiani, Ray Romano, Kurt Braunohler (who co-stars as Kumail’s roommate, and fellow stand-up, Chris) and producer Judd Apatow) doing stand-up mixed in with some backstage footage. It was mildly amusing, but nothing you need to go out of your way to see.
4 1/2 out of 5
Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail
Zoe Kazan as Emily
Ray Romano as Terry
Holly Hunter as Beth
Zenobia Shroff as Sharmeen
Anupam Kher as Azmat
Adeel Akhtar as Naveed
Kurt Braunohler as Chris
Bo Burnham as CJ
Aidy Bryant as Mary
Directed by Michael Showalter
Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani