The title forewarns you that illness will play a major role in Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” but this is no disease-of-the-week movie. It’s a cross-cultural romantic dramedy in which a medically-induced coma provides an unlikely catalyst to commitment.
It’s also a showcase for stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the semi-autobiographical script with his wife Emily V. Gordon, played by Zoe Kazan. The fact that they’re married in real life is all the evidence you need that things will end happily, but it’s no spoiler: the movie is a charmer that doesn’t depend on a last-act surprise—thankfully, because in this case that would have been a downer.
Nanjiani plays a version of himself, a Pakistani Uber driver moonlighting as a stand-up comic in Chicago (or vice- versa). Performing his act one night, he meets Emily (Kazan), who gives him a shout-out from the audience and, after the show, goes back to his apartment with him. They get close over time, despite her insistence that she isn’t looking for a serious relationship, and doesn’t appear to appreciate his collection of horror movies much.
The real obstacle, though, is the obstacle presented by Kumail’s family. It’s bad enough that his mother and father (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) would be horrified to learn that he no longer follows the strict Muslim regimen they expect of him; they would be even more appalled to find him dating a white, non-Muslim woman. Indeed, his mother’s preoccupation is finding him a proper bride, arranged marriages being the ordinary practice in Pakistani culture. Indeed, every meal with them, his brother and sister-in-law (Adeel Akhtar and Shenaz Tresurywala) inevitably ends in an “accidental” drop-in by a likely candidate. When Emily finds out about Kumail’s failure to tell his parents about her—and the pretense he’s been engaged in with his mother about seriously considering her proposed mates—it apparently means the end of their relationship.
Shortly thereafter, Emily falls ill, and Kumail is called to her bedside in the hospital and asked to sign an emergency approval form for placing her in a protective coma. When her parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Roy Romano) arrive from North Carolina, they’re initially put off by his presence—well aware that he’d broken things off with their daughter—but they bond as all of them hover over her as her condition baffles the staff. The question is when—or if—she awakens, she will be in a mood to take Kumail back.
“The Big Sick” can be said to follow the trajectory of a standard-issue rom-com—the cute meeting, the obstacles to commitment, the ultimate reconciliation—but transcends them for a number of reasons. One is that it doesn’t push too hard. Nanjiani has a pleasantly laid-back persona, and his almost apologetic demeanor and deadpan delivery make him extraordinarily likable; but he can also offer some zingers that register without overemphasis. Kazan is the perfect complement, possessing an ebullience that’s not just ingratiating but infectious. Hunter and Romano make a similarly well-matched pair, her hard-nosed practicality and his goofily irenic approach meshing unexpectedly well.
And the script also provides sparkling moments for the rest of the cast. Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler all get moments to shine as other stand-up players (Braunohler is also Kumail’s sad-sack roommate). And while the dinner-table bride scenes offer ample opportunity for some rather broad humor—no pun intended—one of them, with Vella Lovell, carries an unexpected punch when Kumail drives her home and she delivers a poignant explanation of the emotional effect that the “arranged marriage” system has from the other side of the gender divide.
That scene is characteristic of another of the film’s virtues: its recognition that crossing a cultural divide is not a simple matter. Kumail’s parents are employed for comic effect, of course, but they are not reduced to crude caricatures. Even if one disagrees with their traditionalist outlook, one can appreciate their adherence to it, and discern that it’s not easy for their son to hurt them by denying his heritage, however Americanized he’s become.
“The Big Sick” doesn’t have the gloss of a Hollywood comedy—the production is physically pretty ordinary, Brian Burgoyne’s cinematography merely competent, and Showalter’s direction relatively pedestrian. But the film’s warmhearted spirit wins out. Human and humane, it is sweet without being saccharine, funny without becoming raucous, and touching without degenerating into mawkishness—the rare rom-com that appeals to your intelligence rather than insulting it.