The Big Sick is a rare and unexpected pleasure. It’s a rom-com consumed by illness – for much of the film, the leading lady is in a medically induced coma. There is nothing romantic or funny about this situation. And yet, director Michael Showalter and writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon construct a comical and emotional film around it.
The film is based on Kumail and Emily’s own romance. It retraces the relationship between Kumail, who is a stand-up comedian, and Emily, who here is played by Zoe Kazan. They meet at one of his shows and despite their protests to each other that they don’t want a relationship, love blooms. Except Kumail neglects to tell his conservative Pakistani family – his father, played by Anupam Kher, is disapproving but the real spoke in the wheel is his mother, played by Zenobia Shroff, who insists on having him meet eligible Pakistani girls who keep dropping in whenever Kumail visits. The cultural clash threatens to derail their relationship but then Emily falls gravely ill and Kumail finds himself stuck in a hospital with her parents – played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. At first, they view him with suspicion, especially the mother. But slowly, over some deeply awkward and hilarious moments, affection blooms here too.
The Big Sick feels genuinely sincere and sweet – perhaps because it hews so closely to Kumail and Emily’s real life romance. There are so many memorable scenes – at one point, Emily’s father asks about 9/11 and Kumail’s attempt at making a joke falls flat. On another occasion, they accompany Kumail to his comedy club but things go hilariously wrong when a racist heckler goes at Kumail. Zoe, Romano and Hunter are all wonderful actors and Kumail, who is in nearly every scene, plays himself with a natural ease.
What doesn’t work as well is the Pakistani family. Unlike Emily’s parents, these folks are under-written. They don’t seem to have enough layering. I didn’t get enough of a sense of the emotional richness of their family life. Another hiccup is the length – even for a film so high on laughs, almost two hours feels too long.
But eventually, what will stay with you is how beautifully The Big Sick captures the messiness of life, its unpredictability and its inherent ineptness. This film is generous, authentic and smart. It made me laugh out loud and cry.