A romantic comedy in which one of the star-crossed lovers spends a large chunk of the film in a serious coma is a tough sell. Then again, The Big Sick isn’t just a romantic comedy, and it doesn’t need hoary romantic clichés to dig away at real love. Based on the beginning of comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with his now-wife Emily V. Gordon, a surprising amount of laughs flow from a premise that sounds both convoluted and earnest.
It isn’t either of those things, but there’s more going on than the usual true loves kiss rubbish. For a start, there’s the serious illness that forces Emily (Zoe Kazan) into a medically induced coma. Then there’s the real problem: the secrets stand-up comedian Kumail insists on holding, and the knowledge his family will vehemently oppose him having anything to do with a woman if she isn’t Pakistani.
Yes, this is culture clash drama that plays for laughs without taking cheap shots at those funny foreigners doing funny things. It helps Nanjiani stars and writes his own family history. He makes the family moments amusing without ever losing warmth. They’re funny because this is how family dynamics often are, not because they happen to be Pakistani.
There’s a lot more going on than just that though. Kumail’s whirlwind with Emily is sweet and believable, drawing laughs from topics as diverse as Uber, horror movies, and defecation. His life as a stand-up has a lived in feel as well, the back-stage banter and occasionally painful live performances coming with a sting of reality. Judd Apatow is on-board as one of the producers and it has the aura of one of his stable. Michael Showalter, a David Wain alumni directs too.
With this male-heavy influence, two roles become vital. The first is Emily’s mother Beth, played by Holly Hunter. The scenes with her parents and Kumail are some of the very best with Hunter stealing them all. She’s full of barely contained energy and furious emotion that overshadows a likeable turn from Ray Romano as the father. It also overshadows Kumail, who is both strength and weakness in The Big Sick. He has an engaging manner and is great with a joke, but he’s no dramatic actor. There’s often a slight smirk on his face when there shouldn’t be, reducing the emotional kick in several scenes.
Which makes it all the more important to get Emily right. Kazan is an inspired choice, forceful and self-aware, refusing to let her character fall away from a film she must spend a large chunk out of. It helps immeasurably that Gordon co-writes. The Big Sick could have become dangerously unbalanced otherwise.
It didn’t though, blending the immigrant experience into that of the striving performer, the embattled parents, and the unexpected lovers. It’s hilarious without resorting to condescension or stereotype, dramatic without turning maudlin. And it’s hard not to like.
Director: Michael Showalter
Writers: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Stars: Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan, Kumail Nanjiani
Runtime: 119 mins
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