Limiting Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani’s script forThe Big Sick as nothing more than “cute,” as individuals as my press screening did, is a grave error when reading the film. Disguising itself as a romantic comedy at first, and one with marvelous chemistry between actors Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, The Big Sick proves it’s a layered dramatic work quickly. The film shifts from a tale of Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Kazan), growing as a couple into something entirely different. The catalyst? Just after the two break up, Emily develops an illness that requires her to be placed into a medically-induced coma and Kumail is the one who signs the papers.
While this would normally be the point where a film written solely by a man has his protagonist become a fully-formed human being while his (former) partner dies, The Big Sick takes a different turn. It becomes an impressively honest family drama. On one hand, there’s the narrative of Kumail having to tell his parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), that he has no interest in their religious practices—from arranged marriage to praying throughout the day—and face the possibility of being disowned. On the other, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are dealing with a strained marriage and the fact that their daughter may not survive.
There’s emotional truth in how every individual handles grief and the revelations that things won’t be going their way, and Michael Showalter allows his actors to realize the full potential of the script. It’s not a narrative built on big moments, but on small truths and the humor that strings it all together. Showalter, Gordon & Nanjiani slide deftly between jokes about 9/11 and emotional breakdowns without missing a beat. Between Hello, My Name Is Doris and The Big Sick, Showalter is proving himself a wonderful director for these contained comedies. He’s not a showy filmmaker when it comes to presentation, especially when compared to his former partner David Wain, who primarily goes for a constant stream of humor (resulting in some wildly inventive moments throughout their career together).
This, instead, allows for real emotion to surface through frank conversations. Though there are two notable moments of poor ADR work, each other scene is pitch perfect in how they’re composed. The blocking of Hunter and Romano in every shot, paired with great costuming to mirror personality, is gorgeous in the most casual manner. Family dinners and comedian gatherings feel as intimate as two men forced into an uncomfortable conversation in a bedroom together.
Nothing goes on longer than necessary—though some might argue that the last ten minutes or so drag on—and every minute counts when it comes to processing in-film events. Nothing is fixed in an instant and, as with many an Apatovian production (which this is), time is required to heal wounds. And that’s why the two-hour dramedy feels perfectly paced when it’s built around empathizing with a number of individuals who are all wildly different. Universality is often a word people limit to White Characters dealing with Broad Topics, but The Big Sick becomes universal in the way it presents these humans with all of their flaws.
To be fair, everyone in the film is as charming as one might expect from a romantic comedy. These are not the gritty antiheroes of [insert HBO series here], but rather human beings who have trouble with acceptance, be it acceptance of death, of religious difference, of romantic feelings or lack thereof, of the poor choices they’ve made, and even of how their life turned out. The Big Sick is more than just a film about two people falling for each other; it’s about “coming out” with your truth, facing the consequences that come with it, and hoping there’s something better at the end of the road. The fact that it’s the kind of film that makes you try to restrain yourself from crying or laughing at the cinema as to not disturb others only makes it better.
Directed by Michael Showalter; written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani; starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Vella Lovell, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant & Kurt Braunohler; 119 minutes.
The Big Sick is now playing everywhere.