Friday Film Focus: The Big Sick

Actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani fell in love with his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Emily V. Gordon when she was in a coma. It sounds crazy and too melodramatic to be true…but it is. It also sounds impossible that such a story would make for a crowd-pleasing comedy. However, that’s exactly what The Big Sick is (and so much more).

Nanjiani plays an earlier version of himself, while Zoe Kazan plays Emily. Nanjiani and Gordon have dared to make themselves vulnerable. They showcase an intimate glimpse into a traumatic and frightening time in their lives. The events that ultimately brought the two together are extreme, but the depiction of them always rings true. At the start of The Big Sick, the on-screen Kumail is struggling to make ends meet. He works as an Uber driver by day and a stand-up comic by night. One night at the comedy club, he connects with the smart and beautiful Emily (Kazan), who’d inadvertently heckled him during his set. With a deadpan playfulness, they repeatedly insist they’re not dating — even though it’s clear they’re falling for each other.

Emily, a grad student with plans to become a therapist, is no giggly rom-com heroine seeking approval. Their mutual attraction grows into something deeper. With that said, Kumail keeps stalling about introducing this white girl to his strict Muslim family. Kumail doesn’t tell Emily that his family is actively trying to arrange a marriage for him. Dating a white woman is essentially asking to get disowned. Anytime the comic comes home for dinner, his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff) trot out another suitable Pakistani woman.

It’s a credit to the film that the old-world ties to his family and their culture still tug at this assimilated young man. It’s no wonder Emily resents being kept at arm’s length from the people that matter most to the man she loves. Caught between Pakistani and American identities, between Islam and agnosticism, Kumail is unsure of who he is — but he knows he can’t tell his family about the white woman who’s become so important to him. But Kumail keeps his feelings in check, except in deadpan comedy routines in which he lists the preferred order of career choices for a young Pakistani man: “Doctor, engineer, lawyer, ISIS, comedian.” However, the couple hit a stalemate. She breaks up with him in a scene that resonates with raw humor and injured feelings.

Suddenly, Emily gets sick — a sudden and inexplicable illness that forces doctors to place her in a medically-induced coma. By the time Emily goes into a medically induced coma, we palpably miss her, because she feels like a real person. This allows us to meet her parents — the nerdy, down-to-Earth Terry (Ray Romano) and the feisty, no-nonsense Beth (Holly Hunter). This places Kumail in the uncomfortable position of getting to know them under dire circumstances. Each of them resents him for hurting their daughter. Duly, each of them gradually begins to see this stranger as vulnerably human. Nothing simple here. Pain has a way of resisting comfy clichés. A scene in which Beth attempts to defend Kumail from a racist heckler is both hilarious and deeply endearing. The way Romano and Hunter navigate their characters’ daily highs and lows — and dance around each other — is
simultaneously pitch perfect and consistently surprising. Romano is great in an unusual dramatic role, but Hunter is just a fierce force of nature.

As Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents deepens, he risks permanently damaging his relationship with his own family. Nanjiani is also a revelation, investing his role with grit, grace and touching gravity. The depth of emotion he unveils here shows his career as an actor has only just begun. Director Michael Showalter’s film defies categorization. You could call it a romantic comedy and that would be accurate, because there elements of romance and comedy. But the film also functions as an astutely insightful exploration of how we live now with the Pakistan-born comic. Showalter’s sensibility resonates well with Nanjiani’s. Both are perfectly comfortable with the idea that not everything needs a joke.

Judd Apatow is the movie’s producer and guiding spirit. He was reportedly initially entranced by Nanjiani and Gordon’s true story. He gives the film just the right comedic context as Kumail interacts –- sometimes generously, sometimes selfishly –- with stand-up pals played by Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler and SNL‘s Aidy Bryant. Still, it’s Nanjiani and Gordon who raise the bar on rom-coms by seeing relationships (and the families wrapped up in them) as the bruising business they are. Their hilarious and heartfelt script has a rare authenticity that pulls you in and keeps you glued to the screen.

Image Source: IMDb