The Big Sick & Film Club deals
IT’S rare to come across a romantic comedy that genuinely feels fresh, which is devoid of the usual tics, signposts and stock supporting characters of boy meets girl, boy loses girl. The Big Sick is one of those, a winningly sweet, funny, original story of a romance that gets there in the end, even if first the girl has to fall into a coma.
And while that last point sounds like a preposterous idea that would only happen in a film, it’s not. For the film’s premise and the obstacles faced by its young lovers are based on the real-life experience of its co-writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon. This really was the rollercoaster beginnings of their life together.
In Chicago, Pakistani-born Kumail (Nanjiani, playing a version of himself) is an aspiring stand-up comedian, performing most nights in a club while working as an Uber driver to pay the bills. He shares an apartment with a fellow comedian, but regularly visits his family for dinner, their meals invariably interrupted by single Pakistani women, invited by Kumail’s mother Sharmeen (Zenoba Shroff), whose primary ambition is for her younger son’s arranged marriage.
But Kumail is not a devout Muslim. After psychology student Emily (Zoe Kazan) jovially heckles from the audience one night, he catches her at the bar, deploying his variation of a chat-up line – writing her name in Urdu on a napkin. A gently comic courtship ensues. And then the romance gets serious.
Or does it? Kumail may resist his family’s expectations, including for prayer, but he doesn’t tell them about his relationship, knowing that to do so would have devastating consequences. When Emily finds out that she’s been a secret for months, she doesn’t react well.
At this point there’s more than enough for a film. The pressures on young Muslims to live traditional Muslim lives is poignantly demonstrated, not just for Kumail, who complains to his parents that “the rules don’t make sense to me” and wonders why they brought him to America if they don’t wish him to lead “an American life”, but also for the young women deposited next to him at dinner. A T the same time, Kumail’s stand-up gives the film a likeable and at times biting context, from the backstage backstabbing of the desperate comedians, none of whose routines is particularly funny, to the redneck heckler who tells the Pakistani American to “go back to Isis”.
But then Emily is rushed to hospital with a mysterious infection, and the film takes on another dimension, as Kumail and Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano) find themselves having to cope, together, with the emergency.
True or not, the plot would feel over-egged were it not constantly bought to life by small details: Kumail’s cigar box, full of the photos of his prospective Pakistani brides, and decidedly dodgy-looking for the girlfriend who comes across it; his excruciating one-man show about life in Pakistan, which bores his audience with the finer points of cricket; his Bollywood-loving father’s endearing habit of breaking into song (beautifully played by Anupam Kher); Beth and Terry’s love-hate bickering.
Like many films about comedians, it’s also the case here – quite deliberately – that the best humour happens offstage. Romano, in particular, is an inveterate, deadpan scenestealer as the awkward but wellmeaning Terry.
It’s not without its issues: Kazan is such an appealing presence that there’s a hole in the film when her character is indisposed; and at times emotions are needlessly overstated. But even in this it rings true, for how easy is it for anyone to edit their own life?
Zoe Kazan as Emily and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail in The Big Sick