Stand-up comedian and podcaster Kumail Nanjiani makes the big leap to leading man status in this critically-acclaimed romcom. Cal tells us why it is better than the genre deserves.
One of the most unexpected movie-going delights of 2017, The Big Sick is much more than just another fluffy Hollywood romantic comedy. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, the movie is loosely based on the true story of their courtship and romance, eschewing forced sentiment and broad jokes to construct an effective dramedy with cross-cultural themes, an appealing cast, big laughs and heart aplenty. The movie was co-produced by the perpetually-busy Judd Apatow, who pushed Nanjiani to write the screenplay after hearing the real-life story on a podcast. And thank goodness it all worked out, as the autobiographical tale serves as the perfect basis for an affecting and amusing rom-com, one of the best that the genre has seen for some time.
An aspiring Pakistani-born comedian living in Chicago, Kumail (Nanjiani) hopes to earn a spot at a major upcoming comedy festival to further his career, while his traditional parents – Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) – frantically try to find a woman for him. But when Kumail meets a white, non-Muslim graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan), the pair find themselves entering a relationship, despite their mutual desire to remain unattached. Kumail is compelled to keep his relationship with Emily a secret, because his very strict family require him to enter an arranged marriage with a woman of the same race and religion. After a fight abruptly ends Kumail’s romance with Emily, she winds up contracting a mysterious disease which compels the doctors to put her in a medically-induced coma. Kumail becomes Emily’s temporary caretaker until her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), fly in from North Carolina. However, even despite the break-up, Kumail finds himself unable to return to his everyday life, staying at the hospital and bonding with Beth and Terry as Emily’s condition baffles the hospital staff.
Since the screenplay is based on real-life experiences, there is a heightened sense of realism and honesty to the movie, earning laughs through witty dialogue rather than dumb, broad slapstick. When Emily is put into a coma, the actions of Beth and Terry ring true, from spending hours on end waiting at the hospital for any sort of news, to taking notes when speaking to the doctors, and Googling every tiny fragment of information about Emily’s condition. The relationship that Kumail forms with Terry and Beth is wholly unforced; they’re understandably hesitant to warm up to him, but Kumail manages to earn their respect and affection. Nanjiani and his wife spent a number of years writing and perfecting the Oscar-nominated screenplay, which also has a few things to say about the intolerance of modern-day America. Indeed, The Big Sick does not shy away from showing the bias towards Muslims, and wisely uses astute humour to lighten the mood. In addition, the movie realistically examines the struggle that comes with being biologically tied to one culture whilst living in and trying to assimilate into another.
Slickly assembled and shrewdly paced by director Michael Showalter (who previously worked with Nanjiani on 2015’s Hello, My Name Is Doris), The Big Sick makes the most of its meagre $5 million budget, with pleasing cinematography and agreeable soundtrack choices. Despite the weightiness of the story’s subject matter, Showalter miraculously manages to negotiate effective tonal changes throughout, earning laughs when appropriate whilst also creating something very poignant. The Big Sick is certainly lengthy, coming in at a hair under two hours including credits, but it’s rarely boring or meandering. With such a generous runtime in place, the movie has leeway for smaller moments, including a painfully realistic and touching scene during which Kumail listens to old voicemails from Emily. Little looks and pauses are also permitted, but Showalter keeps the proceedings on a tight leash more often than not. However, the stand-up comedian world has been explored quite a bit on-screen in the past (including in Apatow’s own Funny People), and The Big Sick is admittedly at its weakest when focusing on Kumail’s stand-up friends improvising on-stage to mixed results. These sequences should be a bit leaner, particularly since the jokes are not that funny.
Admittedly, Nanjiani does look his age, which may be slightly jarring since he was in his twenties when the events of the story took place, but his performance is so focused and charming that it hardly matters. Playing himself, Nanjiani’s comedic timing is spot-on, and he also proves to be an adept dramatic performer to boot – he imbues the movie with genuine heart, which is one of the things that elevates The Big Sick above the ordinary. Happily, Nanjiani is surrounded by a winning supporting cast, with Zoe Kazan a particular standout as Emily. Although she’s absent for the second act due to the nature of Emily’s illness, Kazan is effortlessly disarming, and handles the emotional moments with impressive assurance. In addition, the chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan seriously sparkles. Meanwhile, Hunter and Romano play a bit against type, with the normally comedic Romano asked to call upon his dramatic chops and predominantly play things straight. Nevertheless, both thespians truly shine in their respective roles, adding more heart and coming across as believable parents.
Yes, The Big Sick does incorporate a few standard rom-com clichés, but that’s inevitable, and it hardly matters since the picture is otherwise full of heart, originality and honesty. Some aspects of the story are exaggerated or changed compared to the real story as well, but it all adds up to a dramatically satisfying and well-rounded movie with the potential to appeal to a wide audience. The Big Sick is fun and funny, telling a worthwhile story whilst providing an edifying look into the difficulties of upholding familial and cultural traditions in contemporary society. Plus, even though this is a true story with a foregone conclusion, it’s still easy to become fully invested in the picture and worry about what’s going to happen in terms of both Emily’s health and the fate of the central coupling. The Big Sick is a big winner all-round.
- Was released in the United States on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s tenth wedding anniversary.
- The decision to add the real-life photos of Emily and Kumail in the credits was suggested by actress Leslie Mann after seeing an early cut of the film.
- Judd Apatow reached out to Ray Romano for the part of Terry after briefly working with him in the movie Funny People (2009). He was also a huge fan of the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond.
- The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it was very well received, which started a bidding war between Sony, Focus Features, Amazon, & Netflix for the distribution rights. Nanjiani wanted the film to have theatrical distribution, which eliminated Netflix from the bidding war because they’re not a proponent in that distribution model. The film’s distribution rights were eventually bought for around $12 million by Amazon who is a big proponent of the theatrical experience, with all of its films getting at least some kind of theatrical run. The $12 million dollar deal is one of the largest deals in Sundance’s history.