The Big Sick
Mythology to the contrary, America has never been quite the melting pot we used to pride ourselves on. The entrenched population can be hostile to newcomers. First-generation immigrants often circle the wagons, fiercely protective of their traditions. One of the taboos most earnestly guarded against is mixed marriage. This is the subject tackled by screenwriters Emily V. Gordon, a writer and producer, and her husband, Kumail Nanjiani, a stand-up comic and star of HBO’s
In the movie, co-produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), Nanjiani plays a version of himself, a young Pakistani immigrant who does stand-up comedy and drives for Uber. Gordon’s character is taken over by Zoe Kazan. They meet at the Chicago club where he’s onstage and she’s in the audience, and a feisty and fitful relationship ensues.
The fitfulness comes from Kumail’s inability to commit. His parents expect him to marry a Pakistani girl. At the family dinner table, the doorbell will ring, and his mother (Zenobia Shroff) will say, “Who could that be?” and then return with an attractive Pakistani Muslim girl who “just happened to drop by.” (These young women are mostly terrific.) Kumail is expected to choose one of them as his bride. When Emily realizes he has never told his parents about her, she angrily breaks off the relationship. In his culture, Kumail explains helplessly, “Arranged marriage is marriage. Anything else is unthinkable.”
Unthinkable perhaps for his parents (his father is played by Bollywood great Anupam Kher), but not for Kumail, and when shortly after their breakup Emily is suddenly hospitalized with a mysterious infection and put in a coma, Kumail stays at her side day and night. The movie suffers almost as much as Kumail does from the loss of the delightful Kazan for that long stretch, but the slack is taken up by the arrival of her parents, wonderfully played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.
Gordon and Nanjiani’s script is smart, funny, and has the ring of truth, in part because the couple has lived a lot of it. The cast, which includes a smattering of comics, is uniformly good, anchored by the soulful Nanjiani and the irrepressible Kazan.
You can have fun unpacking that title — does it refer just to Emily’s illness, or might it expand to love itself, or could it include a sly reflection on contemporary racial and ethnic attitudes? In any case, is a romantic comedy with a richness of cultural insights, a beating heart, and genuine laughs. — Jonathan Richards