There’s a narrative around romantic comedies, a type of film so unjustly maligned that any time we get a successful entry in the genre, we’re told it’s “one of the good ones.” But Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick isn’t good in spite of its rom-com trappings – it’s great because it honors the genre, proudly wearing the label while proving that it can mean any number of things.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote and produced the film based on their own romance, and that vein of authenticity runs through every beat of The Big Sick, a movie as awkwardly and heart-slammingly real as dinner with your own family. Here, Nanjiani plays a version of himself, a comedian and Uber driver who falls for Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner. Unfortunately for Kumail, Emily doesn’t really have time for a relationship, because she’s busy getting her master’s in psychology. Still, a romance emerges anyway, because the best relationships are usually born of bad timing.
The opening days of Emily and Kumail’s romance make up a butterfly-inducing first act, charming and embarrassing in that new-love sort of way, this delirious discomfort that colors your every interaction with a new partner. Emily tries to sneak out in the middle of the night to poop far away from her new boyfriend. Kumail eagerly stares at Emily as she watches his favorite movie, and she rolls her eyes that she loves it when guys test her on her taste, a set-up that will likely be familiar to every woman watching in the audience. For many of us, it was a band or a beatnik author that we’re required to “get” in order to win a guy’s favor. For Emily, it’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
This is the stuff of good storytelling: specificity, familiarity, insight. But The Big Sick’s just getting started. Kumail, as crazy as he is about Emily, isn’t taking her seriously as a forever prospect. His parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and brother (Adeel Akhtar) expect him to follow their tradition with an arranged marriage to a Pakistani woman. He has a cigar box full of headshots with notes on the back, and when Emily finds it she asks, “Are you judging Pakistan’s Next Top Model?” The truth is, he’s never told his family about Emily. They expect one of these headshots to become his wife.
But even in a story as packed as The Big Sick’s, these women aren’t really reduced to just headshots. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell stands in for all of Kumail’s potential brides when she tells him how uncool it is that he’s wasting her time if he has no real interest in an arranged marriage. Also, she’s watched three episodes of Kumail’s obsession The X-Files, and it’s not a good show. She’s got her own favorite shows, and her own dating challenges, and just because she’s one in a string of women Kumail’s mom has brought to dinner doesn’t mean they’re not each their own person, wholly separate from Kumail’s personal drama. It’s a three-minute scene that speaks volumes, giving depth and humanity to the women Kumail rejects, a crucial layer that a lesser film would overlook.
There’s still another dimension to The Big Sick, another story to tell. Emily gets very, very sick, mysteriously so, and the doctors recommend a medically induced coma. Kumail is there, because he’s not over Emily, a discovery he makes when it seems like it might be too late. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who have heard about the man who broke their daughter’s heart, leaving Kumail to prove that he’s serious about being here for Emily, even if she’s not awake to realize it.
There’s so much here, so much story and insight and meaning. Nanjiani’s Pakistani heritage informs his character in important, complicated ways. We’re rooting for Kumail to end up with Emily, of course, but never at the expense of his family, characters we grow to love as they do their best to understand this wisecracking outlier. Kumail has so much respect for his family and agonizes over disappointing them, but the life he’s made for himself in America is at relentless odds with their expectations of him.
And then there’s Emily, who has much more agency than we’re used to seeing in the female lead of a will-they-won’t-they romance. She sets the pace for the relationship from the beginning. She has a plan, and she knows what she wants, and though her feelings for Kumail don’t strictly fit that plan, it never feels like she just stumbles into true love. Emily makes the decision to relax her rules, because she thinks Kumail’s worth it. When we meet Emily’s parents, the character becomes even more actualized: she has her father’s warmth, her mother’s fierce resolve. We see Emily in Beth and Terry.
Everyone is great here. Nanjiani and Kazan are funny and deeply appealing, a dynamic so refreshing that even if The Big Sick never progressed beyond their early courtship, it would be a film worth watching. All of the parents are tremendous, achingly protective of their children while still believable as their own characters with their own lives. Hunter is understandably receiving the lion’s share of accolades as Beth, a character so fascinating and complex and mildly terrifying that she could easily carry a ten-part miniseries on her own. The scenes with Kumail and Emily’s parents make up their own powerful arc, one we’ve never seen before but that adds a really unusual depth to this relationship. Even the supporting roles, particularly Akhtar and Aidy Bryant as Kumail’s friend, are rich and interesting. It doesn’t feel like there are any throwaway characters here, and in a film with two leads as attention-carrying as Nanjiani and Kazan, that’s especially impressive.
I’ve gone this far without even talking about how damn funny it is. The Big Sick is mercilessly funny, the kind of hilarious that requires multiple viewings because you’re sure to have missed some jokes under the audience’s laughter. The humor’s coming from everywhere – Kumail’s standup, Emily’s banter, the push-and-pull with their parents. The Big Sick has so much important story to tell - after all, this is a woman's story and an immigrant's story, and we need as many of those as possible right now. So the film could be forgiven for forgetting to be funny now and again, but it never does. Even when it’s pulling your heart in ten directions, The Big Sick is still delivering belly-laughs.
And suspense! Emily V. Gordon introduced the film onstage beforehand with Nanjiani and producer Judd Apatow, but later, the audience was holding its collective breath in suspense over Emily’s fate. That's formidable filmmaking. The Big Sick is such a compelling story that it's easy to forget it’s a true one, because life’s almost never this interesting. It's the best kind of romantic comedy, small in scope but vast in impact, and a reminder of just how great the genre can be when we give it the chance.