The Big Sick
The Big Sick is supposed to be the (almost) true story of actor-comic Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and writer-producer Emily V. Gordon’s relationship. Thankfully, it’s also a charming, warm and frequently funny movie regardless of whether it would past muster with the myth-busting online Snopes.com crew.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Nanjiani and Gordon have an unusual, if not unique, relationship. In addition to the difficulties most couples encounter, the two have also had to face some cultural barriers that not only break up couples but even prevent their unions from ever starting.
Nanjiani plays Kumail, an Uber driver who’s also trying to launch a standup career. His Pakistani immigrant family doesn’t think that either of his professions have much of a future and would like him to find a steady, prestigious white collar job and marry a nice Pakistani girl.
To ensure the latter, his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) interrupts every meal Kumail has at home by “spontaneously”
introducing one of potentially legions of Desi Muslims who just happens to be living in the Chicago area.
In lesser hands, this joke could have gotten stale quickly. Thankfully, Nanjiani and Gordon’s script gives each of the potential brides a vivid personality, and the actresses get the most out of what is fleeting screen time. It’s quickly obvious that these women are as frustrated with the pressure to marry as Kumail is.
If being placed in an arranged marriage seems unappealing, it’s made worse by the fact Kumail is falling for a young white woman who heckled one of his sets. If Emily (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks) has committed a cardinal sin of audience behavior, Kumail finds himself drawn to her courage and resolve.
He could use some of those qualities. He doesn’t tell his folks that he’s seeing Emily because she’s not only a non-Muslim, but divorced. It’s no wonder she gradually dumps Kumail because she wants to be a girlfriend instead of a dirty secret.
Right when Kumail begins to regret his cowardice, he gets a call informing him that Emily has become seriously ill and needs him. The doctors are about to induce a coma, and her understandably worried parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) are in town. Quickly, Kumail has to become the boyfriend he should have been earlier.
Director Michael Showalter handles the hospital scenes with an appropriate sense of gravity, but The Big Sick is hardly morose. The characters don’t speak in punchlines or quips, but the dialogue is consistently realistic and offhandedly funny. Kumail is often funnier when he’s trying to negotiate with the two families he has upset. His potential in-laws know about the breakup and initially blame him for her medical woes.
In fact, Kumail’s parents become more sympathetic as the film progresses. Casting formidable performers like Shroff and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher (The Silver Linings Playbook, Bend It Like Beckham) certainly doesn’t hurt.
Kumail’s career doldrums would make any mother or father concerned. Even if Kumail could work a microphone with the finesse and mastery of Chris Rock, his chances of making it as a comedian are thin. Also, there are still folks out there who can’t tell the difference between an observant Muslim and a terrorist. It’s hard to reach out to others if you aren’t welcome.
Gordon and Nanjiani avoid making a vanity project from The Big Sick by giving the supporting cast plenty to do. Hunter and Romano initially seem like an unlikely couple, but her domineering manner and Romano’s hangdog demeanor are surprisingly compatible, and the latter is actually funnier when he’s not delivering bon mots.
By gazing outside of their navels, Nanjiani and Gordon can tell their story with something that’s worthwhile for the rest of us.