The Big Sick is ‘17’s biggest triumph thus far; a romantic comedy that doubles as a coming out party for Kumail Nanjiani. For fans of Nanjiani’s work on Mike Judge’s HBO tech bro series Silicon Valley, or his riotously geeky podcasts (such as The X-Files Files or The Indoor Kids, the latter of which he co-hosts with Big Sick writing and life partner, Emily V. Gordon), his effortless turn as a leading man is unsurprising. The young Pakistani comedian is charismatic in a “guy next door” sense; handsome, soft spoken, and sporting a wicked sense of timing in both comedic and dramatic scenarios. The fact that he’s playing himself doesn’t really matter when discussing his performance, as he makes even the most ostensibly humdrum scenes engaging and exciting. That’s acting of the highest order – elevating what could’ve been “my life, my story” doldrums into a genre arena many wish their existences could resemble.
Judd Apatow’s productions follow an established formula that have essentially turned his “brand” of moviemaking into comedy’s comic book cinema. Much how we stroll into MCU pictures and instantly know what to expect – their narrative mechanics acting like stencils that each respective filmmaker shades as they see fit – one can sit down with an Apatow joint and have similar anticipation as to what’s coming. His works (both as an auteur and producer) often position a comedic talent on the brink of stardom (think: Steve Carrell in 40-Year-Old Virgin, Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, or Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) associating with a group of goofball friends as they collectively struggle to get an endeavor (usually artistic) off the ground. A girl catches our hero’s eye. They fall in love. There’re struggles, truth, a falling out, a reconciliation, a creative breakthrough, and a happy ending. Many times, the pictures are slightly overlong, but when you’re in the presence of such affable chums (many of whom are regular players in this universe) it’s tough to complain.
It’s the classic rom-com recipe, repurposed so that Apatow and his cohorts (like Forgetting Sarah Marshall/Get Him to the Greek writer/director Nick Stoller, or The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter) can allow their casts to riff for take after take, the best of which are discovered in the editing bay. Funny People may be the flawed crystallization of this formula, as it pairs an old superstar (Adam Sandler) with an up and coming dreamer (Rogen, again) so that each’s autobiographical character can find their voice through their relationship with the other (naturally while chasing women they adore). There are deviations from the Apatow norm – the stoner action lark Pineapple Express, Will Ferrell’s personalized vehicles like Anchorman or Step Brothers, and last year’s Popstar come to mind – but his endless fascination with lovelorn man-children is a cow he’s milked to mucho success. Even when Apatow’s endeavors showcase women – like in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids or his own Trainwreck – the blueprint is still present, only gender-flipped and focused on female struggles in both life and love. He’s James L. Brooks Jr. or, at least, that’s how it’s always seemed like he’s fancied himself.
Which is why The Big Sick is a unique entry in the Apatow oeuvre. Showalter’s dramedy (which is, as you probably already know, based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s dramatizations of their tumultuous early courtship) fits the producer’s mold to a tee. Kumail is as he was – a struggling Chicago stand up, driving for Uber by day and working the mic for five minute sets by night. He shares foul mouthed critiques on other comedians’ acts with his comrades (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant), while wishing his slacker roommate (Kurt Braunohler) would just get the fuck off the couch already. He’s your standard Apatow protag, except instead of being a forty-year-old virgin, part of his routine is going home to have dinner with his Muslim family, where his mom and dad (the excellent Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) attempt to set him up with young single Pakistani women. They feel his marriage should be arranged, as their culture dictates. Kumail struggles with Muslim traditions that have been ingrained through generations of strict observation, even going as a far as to sneak away downstairs and fake his way through prayer sessions before dessert (a set up which leads to one hell of an emotional payoff). While not a total stranger inside of this unit, he’s certainly an outsider, trying to decide whether to fit into the mold his parents have crafted, or continue down his own path toward happiness.
One night, he’s heckled on stage by Emily (Zoe Kazan) – a cute student who he later approaches in a bar and takes home to his luxurious air mattress. The two fall fast for one another, but Emily insists that she “doesn’t have time to date anyone right now”, and instructs Kumail not to call her. Had he obeyed and not picked up his cell, there wouldn’t be a Big Sick, and romance blooms while Kumail keeps Emily a secret from his clan. As anyone who’s ever watched a rom-com before in their life can predict, this clandestine affair doesn’t last long, and Emily is heartbroken upon discovering Kumail’s duplicitous approach toward their relationship. The two break up, but Emily falls into a coma shortly thereafter, an infection threatening her life and providing the movie with its title. Kumail stays by her hospital bedside through it all, bonding with his ex’s worried parents (Ray Romano and Holy Hunter) whilst still deciding if he’s ever going to tell his own about what could potentially be the love of his life.
Like many Apatow productions, The Big Sick owns a supporting cast who all deliver incredible turns. Holly Hunter is a force of nature as Emily’s mother, impatiently scanning hospital reviews and barking at her husband (Ray Romano) that they should probably move the girl to Northwestern instead of the potentially suspect facility she’s in now. Romano, in turn, plays the emasculated hubbie with an “aw shucks” slump that hides a significant amount of his own guilt. The two make for a brilliant pairing who could easily carry their own movie – a close quartered This is 50 where we learn about the struggles of two domestic partners entering their twilight years. But the real standout is Adeel Akhtar as Kumail’s brother, Naveed. Every time he and Najiani are on screen together, they generate such a naturalistic chemistry you often forget you’re not actually watching a documentary about two hilarious, good looking Pakistani siblings. They’re just amazing.
It certainly helps that The Big Sick is hysterically funny. Not only does the movie contain the Citizen Kane of 9/11 jokes (stealthily inserted into a moment that simultaneously observes how Kumail’s people are awkwardly addressed regarding the act of terrorism), it also features the Casablanca of drive-thru meltdowns. The Big Sick doles out a variety of comedic set ups and payoffs, never simply relying on riffing as its main form of sidesplitting. Sometimes, the jokes work to accent awkward truths regarding long term relationships, causing them to hit that much harder for any who have attempted to devote their heart to another human being. Other times, they act as accentuations of Kumail’s family’s archaic cultural stances regarding marriage, or Emily’s parents’ struggles with keeping anxiety at bay while their daughter is laid up in a hospital. The layers to Nanjiani and Gordon’s script are going to be a joy to peel back over multiple viewings, as they’re perfect examples of how comedic form can bolster thematic resonance, and the screenplay could possibly warrant a nod all its own.
Beyond transcending its producer’s mold through cross-cultural insights, The Big Sick feels like a movie readymade to counter the cynicism that Donald Trump’s first year in office has bestowed upon all of us. In a mere six months, we’ve seen a war waged against immigrants via court-rejected travel bans and threatened Mexican walls. Meanwhile, our Commander in Shame is batting off allegations of Russian collusion left and right, attempting to distract us from his misdeeds via phantom victories over terrorist organizations such as ISIS. How fucking stellar would it be if the first Best Picture Winner during the Trump regime’s reign is about a man hailing from a Muslim family finding love with a white American girl? All the while, the real-life couple’s script is commenting on the racism post-9/11 culture has caused him and his family to endure. It would be a filmic literalizing of “love Trumps hate”. As much as we enjoy dismissing the Oscars for “getting it wrong” time and again, they can also be a mile marker for how far we’ve come in terms of basic human empathy. Just look at last year’s winner (Moonlight) – a poetic, lyrical tale about two black gay men in love. We needed that film, just like we need The Big Sick. While 2017 is still young, and there are many movies yet to watch, it’s difficult not to want a repeat, where a couple who persevere against antiquated cultural viewpoints find sanctuary in one another’s arms, all we’re while doubled over from laughter.
Kumail, Emily, Michael, and Judd – we’re rooting for you.